They Won’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! – Review – York Theatre Royal
By Ela Portnoy, October 2018
Dario Fo has been hailed as a 20th century court jester, a voice that twists and mocks the disasters of its time. And at the time of writing They Won’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! (1974), Italy’s condition was awful to the point of ridiculous, with political clashes, assassinations and bombings going on left, right and centre. While the modern British climate is not nearly as dramatic or volatile, it is not plain sailing, and Deborah McAndrew’s new adaptation of Fo’s text re-settles the action very comfortably into modern-day Britain.
Conrad Nelson and Deborah McAndrew are an established partnership of director-writer, as well as being joint founders of the company Claybody Theatre. I still remember with fondness their ingenious 2012 adaptation of Gogol’s A Government Inspector, with full actor-musician brass band and caricatures that could have been drawings. This adaptation of Dario Fo’s play was not quite the gem that A Government Inspector was, but it is still a brilliant little satire.
Random combinations of colours and patterns make up the sloping house of Anthea (Lisa Howard) and Jack (Steve Huison). He works in a factory and she is unemployed, behind on rent and bills, and getting fed up with Brexit and the rising prices of food. In a mad farce, we see the lengths that they will go to escape poverty and desperation.
Lisa Howard was the star of this production, with the rest of the tightly-knit cast all closely huddled together in superb quality. Their deadpan belief in every one of their ridiculous actions made for sharp-witted execution, and their characters had a whiff of familiarity – they remind you of neighbours or distant relatives. Lisa Howard carried off lie after lie and trick after trick with complete nonchalance, coming across as an absolute put-together matriarch of a housewife whose life is falling apart behind the scenes. There was a never-failing confidence both in her manner and in her comic timing, especially direct address, which injected something wonderful into the play.
But what made this play was the fact that it had a strong ensemble made up of a set of strong actors, all of whom deserve a mention. Steve Huison’s Jack was comedically clueless and clued-up at the same time. He was completely believable in his unfailing belief in Marxism, and he made some really great faces.
Suzanne Ahmet (Maggie) had a fabulous way of snipping between different caricature expressions, and shared some great moments of sarcasm with the audience. She also had a beautiful voice, and I would have liked to hear more of her singing. Matt Connor (Lewis) was a sweet restless youth with some funny moments of spontaneity and cluelessness, and I missed the comedy of Mike Hugo’s non-moustached policeman after he went off and multiroled his other parts.
“Inventive and slick”
I loved Conrad Nelson’s commitment to breaking the fourth wall in the most obvious and nudge-nudging way possible. The direct address added a lot of the comedy. I also loved the way the set hung kind of lazily just off the edge of the stage, and props came through the line of the audience. Indeed, there were some very inventive and slick uses of set pieces which I will not explain in fear of giving away the play.
I wasn’t so sure about the socialist monologue at the end. While it was true to the ‘avant-garde’ style of Dario Fo’s political theatre, it was so full of rhetoric that I thought it lost its importance and interest. The songs were amusing, but felt a little like they were wedged in, as they came so out of the blue.
All in all, it was a funny and relevant farce for modern-day Britain. Some brilliant acting and ensemble work, an awesome set design and clever and slick use of props. A very enjoyable night out at the theatre.