They Don’t Pay, We Won’t Pay – but what does it say?

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Northern Broadsides has a great track record in adapting classics for a modern-day audience. This re-telling of Dario Fo’s Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay, however, sells the story short for laughs.

I may not make many friends with my current batch of reviews, but I’ve seen several plays with sell-out ticket sales, or overwhelming acclaim, or both – and I’ve not shared the enthusiasm. They Don’t Pay, We Won’t Pay, however, is going to be the toughest one to write, because I had the highest expectations for this. Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson have a long track record of adapting classic plays for contemporary settings, and indeed another Dario Fo play, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, was my first experience of their collaboration, and that was excellent, with a masterful mix of comic timing and poignant messages. This time, however, one has come at the expense of the other, and the play is so hammed up for laughs it drowns out the serious meaning behind it.

When a play fails to live up to high expectations, it is tempting to write a review focusing entire on the negatives and ignore all the positives. So I shall begin with the positives. All of Northern Broadsides’ productions, from the darkest to the most farcial, have been produced to the highest production values, and this is no exception, with the fast-moving action executed flawlessly. The premise also gets off to a good start too. The play begins in a flat in Sheffield, where Anthea comes in with some big bags of shopping. Or rather looting. She confides to her friend Maggie that the local supermarket has pushed up prices one too many times and the impoverished customers won’t take any more and chose to help themselves. However, acting on the spur of the moment has its drawbacks, and Anthea finds herself loaded with plenty of items she doesn’t need, such as pet food. Then the two women have to hide the ill-gotten gains from the policemen looking for it, such as the anti-capitalist commie constable, or his boss, the anti-commie capitalist sergeant. Before, then, however, they must also hide things from Maggie’s husband Jack, who has never done anything illegal in his life (although some people might consider his dogmatic obsession with union rules and regulations to be a crime). And so we go from there.

There are two difficulties the play has: one unavoidable and the other very easily avoidable. The unavoidable challenge was drawing a comparison between today in the UK and the original setting of of the original. At the time Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay was written, living standards in Italy were being ravaged by inflation. Had They Don’t Pay, We Won’t Pay been written five years earlier, at the height of austerity biting, that would have made a great parallel. But now we have Brexit thrown into the mix – and although the play is billed a setting of “Brexit Britain”, that’s not quite the same thing. To give credit where it’s due, Deborah McAndrew doesn’t try to over-simplify the two issues and make austerity and Brexit interchangeable, and in this play Brexit is portrayed as a misguided “up yours” gesture by the disaffected alongside continued austerity woes. That, I think, was the best way to handle an inconvenient event in the news (for more reasons than one), but it does substantially complicate the story, now taking on two thorny subjects instead of one.

Which leads us on to the other problem. If you’re going to introduce something complicated in a play – and trying to analyse the political implications of a combination of austerity and deteriorating attitudes to the EU certain is complicated – it’s wise to keep everything else simple. Of course, Dario Fo’s original heavily mixed his political message with slapstick, starting with Anthea explaining Maggie’s lump under her coat as an unexpected pregnancy (as opposed to a bag of nicked shopping), and increasingly ridiculous situations escalating from this lie. It would of course have been big disservice to take the farce out the adaptation, but instead McAndrew and Nelson opt to play it all for fits and giggles, seemingly to the exclusion of everything else. The first thing that made me wonder was the anti-commie capitalist sergeant preparing to search the flat – by putting on blue rubber gloves and hat, just because. This is the first of many things that throws character believability out of the window, and the more the play progresses, the more obviously the acting gives way to mugging it to the audience. Some of Fo’s political points transplanted well into the play, like the anger that the bankers who screwed up the economy having far easier lives than the people suffering from it, but increasingly this gets drowned out by gags for the sake of gags. The fifth time they do the same hard-on joke, it was all I could do not to wince.

And none of this would matter if the play was only meant as a bit of fun. But it’s not, because at the end of the play, as the landlords close in on every repossessed flat in the neighbourhood, Jack finishes the play with an eloquent speech about the betrayal of the working class, as the Jarrow March is projected around him. But given that, for two hours, he’s been built up as the most gullible character who falls for every trick a six-year-old can see though, it’s too late to suddenly believe he can compose a Guardian editorial on the fly. It is right that any adaptation of a Dario Fo play must still have a message. Here, however, I cannot work out what the message was supposed to be.

I am probably in the minority here. There have been big audiences, laughing all the way, throughout the tour. Normally I would say that’s all that matter. For once, however, I am worried. This is the second time in 12 months I’ve seen a Northern Broadsides play sell itself short by sacrificing believable characters and plots for slapstick, the first one being For Love or Money last year. That play had a different writer and director so it’s not something I will hold against Nelson and McAndrew, but that too got lots of audience and lots of laughs. This seems to be setting a precedent that a commercial success is guaranteed for Northern Broadsides as long as they prioritise easy laughs over everything else. Will they go this way? I really hope not. Nelson and McAndrew hold the title of best production twice over with work I’ve seen before. Please don’t end up as pantomime.

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