York Theatre Royal
Relocated to northern England, this fast-paced panto-esque comedy is damningly relevant now
After the 2008 banking crisis, Dario Fo redrafted his 1974 play Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! Ten years on, both his original tale of fed-up workers nicking groceries and its 21st-century reworking still feel damningly relevant. In a nation of soaring food-bank use and Brexit stockpiling, it’s not hard to imagine a run on the supermarkets.
So reviving Fo’s farce is smart programming by Northern Broadsides. Relocated to northern England, They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! attacks a society in which the elites can raid the state coffers and avoid tax while those at the bottom choose between food and fuel. Anthea (Lisa Howard), unable to find work and behind on her rent, joins a crowd of looters at the local Aldi. Back home, she ropes in reluctant neighbour Maggie (Suzanne Ahmet) to hide their stash from the police in a series of increasingly ridiculous schemes.
As the action spirals out of control, it’s as though the Theatre Royal’s beloved panto has made a premature entrance. The winks and nudges to the audience are a bit forced and inconsistent at first, but the farce is at its best when it lets us in on the joke and glories in its ever-more-silly theatricality. Michael Hugo’s frantic role-swapping is a particular highlight.
The politics are painfully on the nose. Deborah McAndrew’s conscientiously topical new adaptation feels like a game of headline bingo. Brexit, Trump, bankers, NHS privatisation, #MeToo – it’s all there. Characters suddenly talk like op-eds, earnestly educating the audience, when it would be more powerful to let the situation speak for itself. Because the depressing truth is that Fo’s play is as resonant as ever.