Review: They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! at Playhouse Theatre Liverpool

Photo: Nobby Clark

By Nigel Smith

IN Deborah McAndrew’s programme note for her adaptation of They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! she quotes Karl Marx, stating that history repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce. This production from Northern Broadsides gives us pause to wonder whether Groucho might have added pantomime to that list.

Dario Fo’s 1974 play is inherently a bitingly satirical political farce, and it’s original Italian title has been interpreted several ways since its first English translation “Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!” McAndrew, reflects that Fo was reinterpreting the piece with the current title even as Broadsides were presenting their own version of his Accidental Death of an Anarchist in 2008.

That production spoke to the climate of its time every bit as much as this current reworking of They Don’t Pay, We Won’t Pay! does in 2018 but then, the same team of McAndrew and director Conrad Nelson, seemed to trust the writing to speak for itself and give the audience credit for some intelligence. Here they have shoehorned in so many overt references to current affairs that it really does lead to a feeling of being rather punch-drunk by the interval.

Even though the increasingly slapstick action in act 2, as it moves ever closer to Brian Rix territory, maintains a breakneck pace, the adaptation can’t quite escape its temptation to lecture. With writing as sharp as Dario Fo, there really isn’t any need to try so visibly hard to get the message across.

Lisa Howard gives a faultless performance as Anthea, the long-suffering wife of idealist husband Jack. Her efforts to hide her ill-gotten gains from a mass raid on the local supermarket from both him and the local constabulary, aided and abetted by her loyal friend Maggie (played with resolute dippyness by Suzanne Ahmet) build by well-judged degrees to a great comic climax. All this despite Howard being made to give constant asides to the audience just in case we’re not following it (don’t worry – we were).

Broadsides stalwart Michael Hugo has impeccable timing as he transforms between his four comic roles, with some of his entrances, exits and pratfalls becoming absolute show-stealers. His two police officers (a left wing Constable and a right wing Sergeant) are seemingly separated only by two funny voices and a comedy moustache.

The production has all the familiar values of Northern Broadsides, with a solidly traditional set from Jessica Worrall lit in vivid Technicolor by Douglas Kuhrt. The company’s trademark musical interludes are very wisely kept as interludes avoiding the addition of too much accompaniment, which would slow down the pace.

The overall sense that the adapter and director don’t entirely trust either the audience or the source material means that this is not vintage Broadsides, but it does what it says on the tin and raises a laugh, even if it does miss the target in terms of acerbic wit.

They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! Continues touring via Newcastle-under-Lyme, Huddersfield, Scarborough and Halifax, with dates to 2nd December.