Alongside musicals and thrillers, farce remains one of the great mainstays of commercial British theatre. Why? The 1950’s Whitehall farces largely set the mould, wherein misunderstanding always trumped character and believability. And it’s a formula which continues to find favour today, in the massively popular Ray Cooney. Check out these titles: Chase Me Comrade! Bang Bang Beirut, Where’s My Gimp Mask, Vicar? (okay, the last one is made up). Many of Cooney’s plays feature a scantily clad secretary, randy husband, battle-axe wife, and a wardrobe in which to hide. Laugh?! I thought I’d never start.
If this is your only experience of theatrical farce, the plays of Italian actor and dramatist Dario Fo might come as a shock to the system. Fo, who passed away in 2016, created a series of unique, hugely successful comedies, which married the mathematical mechanics of farce, with savage political comment. Coming to prominence in the late 60’s – and usually writing with his wife, Franca Rame – Fo struck an inspired seam in the 1970’s, with two game changing plays: The Accidental Death of an Anarchist, and Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! It’s rare that a playwright is considered a threat to the establishment, but Fo earned that distinction, probably because his work was globally successful (successive Italian governments considered him a rather dangerous figure).
Australian writer, Marieke Hardy was commissioned to update Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! by the Sydney Theatre Company. The production enjoyed a brief run in 2020, before being truncated by the pandemic. So it’s great to see such a biting adaptation given another life. This Royal Exchange production arrives during a cost of living crisis but there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
Antonia (Samantha Power) nips out for a few bits of food, but when she and the other women find supermarket prices have doubled, a social rebellion is born. In an involuntary riot, the women storm the aisles, grabbing what they can, before doing a runner.
Supermarket Sweep on steroids. When she arrives home, Antonia has no idea where to stash her ill gotten gains. Friend and unwitting accomplice Margherita (Katherine Pearce) hides the food under her dress. Antonia‘s husband Giovanni (Roger Morlidge) arrives at an awkward moment. So the women concoct an absurd cover story; Margherita has become pregnant, virtually overnight. Things soon spiral out of control. Are there hilarious consequences? Naturally.
Fo and Rama weren’t just addressing rising food prices, but a total breakdown of society, including police brutality, striking transport workers, and government corruption. There are specific social movements which shaped the original, such as the militant left wing group Lotta Continua, whose antics included the Via Tibaldi event; an occupation of an empty housing project by workers living in unfit accommodation. Cecile Tremolieres’ bright, eye catching set – a pop art nuclear bunker made from blue and yellow pipes, tubes and vents – is perhaps a nod to the brutal, workers’ housing of 1970’s urban Italy.
The male characters drove Fo’s version, at one point even lecturing the women about communism. Hardy has smartly reconfigured the focus, so now it’s Antonia and Margherita who serve as the true agents of chaos. No Pay? No Way! smartly addresses contemporary female pressures, and the various roles women are expected to play in a capitalist system (housewife, friend, mother, worker). There’s also the knotty issue of biology, and the bodily torment of periods, pregnancy and birth. Men don’t know how lucky they are.
Director, Bryony Shanahan (apparently in her last show for the Exchange) directs with effortless zest. It’s easily the most fun production the St Anns Square theatre has done in years. Roger Morlidge, Gurjeet Singh and Anwar Russell are all great. The latter plays a variety of roles, including two wildly different policemen – and gets the best costumes, his Sergeant and Inspector looking like postmodern members of a Village People tribute act (respect to Tracy Dunk and Anna-Beth Fernley for their contributions to this show).
But Margherita and Antonia are the true stars, and Pearce and Power don’t waste the opportunity. I still remember Samantha Power from Zack, at the same theatre 15 years ago; even earlier, she shone in Little Malcolm (at Bolton Octagon). She totally commands the stage here, firing on all cylinders with deranged comic brio.
Not everything’s funny. At the end of Act 2, Margherita delivers an impassioned speech about how tough it is for the working class to survive. It’s a sharp snap back to reality when No Pay? No Way! closes with a rousing rendition of Bella Ciao, a 19th century Italian protest song. To quote the English translation: ‘The boss is standing with his cane, and we work with our backs curved.’ The struggle continues.
At the end, the audience went genuinely beserk. The Royal Exchange clearly has a deserved comic hit on its hands.
No Pay? No Way! is at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester from 12 May to 10 June 2023.