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They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! review at York Theatre Royal – ‘a sense of the ridiculous’

Lisa Howard and Suzanne Ahmet in They Don't Pay! We Won't Pay at York Theatre Royal. Photo: Nobby Clark

Dario Fo’s Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! is a Marxist farce set in 1970s Italy. Fed up with out-of-control inflation and desperately hungry, a group of people liberate the local supermarket.

Deborah McAndrew’s adaptation maintains Fo’s sense of the ridiculous as the incompetent criminals devise increasingly elaborate methods to hide their contraband. It also highlights the ludicrous fact that in 2018 UK there are still people who can’t afford their groceries.

Northern Broadsides’ production questions why, in a contemporary climate of bailed-out banks and corrupt politicians, theft is only a crime when it is committed by those truly in need.

McAndrew and director Conrad Nelson had previous success staging very real issues in an absurdist framework with Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist. A decade later, They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! is timely in its examination of modern food poverty.

The original story is imbued with a madcap energy but it’s tough to sustain a pantomimic seizing of the means of production for over two hours.

Lisa Howard is gutsy yet warm as Anthea, who finds herself caught up in an uprising in Aldi. Her fantastical explanations as she endeavours to hide her loot as false pregnancies (yes, plural) are punctuated by on-the-nose insights. These observations are starkly matter of fact, the reality of simply trying to exist when you have to make decisions to eat or heat, and are only one missed payment away from eviction.

Anthea’s husband Jack’s (Steve Huison) moralistic unionist rants fit his rose-tinted nostalgia for a once-proud working-class resistance. The couple are able to navigate the script’s heavy wordplay and cheeky winks over the fourth wall by being believable caricatures.

Their neighbours Maggie (Suzanne Ahmet) and Lewis (Matt Connor) have a harder task in wringing any sincerity out of their two-dimensional characters. Ahmet at least gets to ham it up as the squeaky, hapless innocent dragged into Anthea’s revolution. Connor’s role is so limited, it could easily have been replaced with a talking lamp. This lack of personality extends to Jessica Worrall’s functional but bland design, a concrete framed box set that fails to reflect either the piece’s serious message or fun delivery.

It’s a funny play in the genre of a very particular kind of farcical humour founded on loving puns and corpses falling out of wardrobes. The cast is obviously having a rollicking good time, as corpsing and stumbled lines abound. Michael Hugo is joyously silly in his multiple parts – his socialist-sympathising policeman a surreal hilarious standout – though it’s frequently uncertain if the laughs are coming for him or his wayward stick-on moustache.

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Northern Broadsides’ adaption of Dario Fo’s 1970s political farce has much to say but relatively little to laugh about