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


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. Continue reading

Hard times and hard adaptations


Hard Times is a much harder story to adapt than the other works taken on by Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson, but they did the best job they could have made of it.

Who called it first? Ten years ago, Accidental Death of an Anarchist was a side-show against Northern Broadsides’ main attraction of Shakespeare and other classic stories, starring or directed by Barrie Rutter, or both. And yet the husband-and-wife team of Conrad Nelson and Deborah McAndrew has grown to become an attraction in their own right, with hits from A Government Inspector and The Grand Gesture, plus a collaboration with Barrie Rutter for An August Bank Holiday Lark,with not a weak link amongst them. Now with Conrad Nelson stepping in as interim artistic director, possibly a permanent arrangement, this pair are now set to dominate the programme. So it is no surprise that after a deservedly successful run of Cyrano de Bergerac that was co-produced with the New Vic, the people of Stoke and Newcastle-under-Lyme would be queuing up for their next show.

Their latest adaptation, however, is of a book rather than a play. And as choices of books go, Charles Dickens’s Hard Times is, somewhat befitting its name, hard. The only Dickens novel that is set in the north (albeit in fictitious Coketown), the story is, in some respects, a longer version of A Christmas Carol. The central arc of the story is the journey of Thomas Gradgrind, a self-made man who attributes his success to learning facts. That, he strongly believes, is what his two children must be taught – and anything that cannot be explained with facts, such as art and love, must be suppressed.* Like Ebenezer Scrooge, his dogmaticism, well-intentioned though it may have started, comes at a heavy price for those he loves, until finally he sees the error of his ways and changes for the better. In the book, the three parts are titles “sowing”, “reaping” and “garnering”, and that summarises the story rather well. Continue reading

Cyrano de Bergerac: Broadsiders know best

Cyrano and Roxane

Cyrano, very faithful to the original story yet made into their own, Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson once again gift Northern Broadsides with a flawless adaptation of a classic play.

Is there no stopping Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson? Although producing their plays under the banner of Northern Broadsides, the husband-and-wife team of writer and director are practically a company within their own right. Not that I think Northern Broadsides is complaining. McAndrew and Nelson have already gifted them hits such as Accidental Death of an AnarchistA Government Inspector and The Grand Gesture (as well as a good collaboration with Northern Broadsides proper with An August Bank Holiday Lark). Barrie Rutter is very lucky to have got them on board.

One thing is missing from this adaptation that is common to previous McAndrews adaptation which some fans of hers may miss. Up to now, she has transplanted classic tales to modern day settings very successfully – tales of petty despotism and political opportunism are just as fitting today as they were a century ago. This time, however, she’s opted to keep the play its original setting of Paris in 1640 at the time leading up to the siege of Arras. Our nasally-enhanced hero Cyrano is still commander to cadet Christian, and he still has the unenviable task from his beautiful and beloved cousin Roxane to do the match-making between her and the new boy in town. Continue reading

An August Bank Holiday Lark: when war was a big adventure

Transitional scene were the dancing morphs into march back to battle

It would have been easy for Northern Broadsides to do yet another play set in the trenches. An August Bank Holiday Lark, however, helps us understand why this came about in the first place.

I’ve never been a fan of making people write plays to “briefs”. Theatre companies do of course have to consider what sells, but I’ve always felt that the more constraints you place on what a writer can write about, the less likely you are to get a good job out of it. Well, one person who feels differently is Deborah McAndrew, who considers these constraints an opportunity for inspiration. In theory, the brief for An August Bank Holiday Lark was quite simple: Northern Broadsides wanted to do a play about World War One on the centenary of its outbreak. In practice, however, it was a lot more constrained. For a start, there are plenty of plays about the horrors of the trenches, with recent successful tours of Journey’s End and Birdsong to contend with. They might have stood out from the crowd by doing a Michael Gove-friendly version where plucky British fellows under command of brilliant aristocratic leaders ensured victory for King George by December 1914, but they didn’t.

Seriously, however, there was little enthusiasm for a trench-based play with a “northern” perspective. The lazy solution – the solution which artistic director Barrie Rutter suspects television would have done – would be to combines stereotypical northern poverty and misery with the misery and subsequent slaughter in the trenches. Then there was another constraint in play – in Lancashire, where this play was to be set, the enduring memory of the war was the Gallapoli offensive in 1915, when the Loyal North Lancashire regiment suffered its worst losses. As a result, a time-frame of 1914-1915 was suddenly imposed on the play. And there was one final constraint: the title suggested by artistic director Barrie Rutter was a line from Phillip Larkin’s famous poem MCMXIV. And it stuck.

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The Grand Gesture: suicide is big business

Victor Stark supposedly comforts Simeon Duff.

The latest McAndrews-Nelson collaboration from Northern Broadsides, an update of The Suicide takes a a long time to get going. But it’s worth it for the end.

There was a famous moment in history when a monk set himself on fire in Vietnam in protest against the persecution of Buddhists. Since then, there have been many high-profile political suicides protesting against lots of things: Vietnam war, communism, nuclear war, women’s rights, and most recently austerity in the EU. Most suicides, however, are low-key non-political affairs – and such wasted opportunities. This, at least, is the premise of Nikolai Erdman’s 1920s play, The Suicide, where an unscrupulous landlord sells political soundbites on a tenant’s suicide note to the highest bidders.

Originally written and set in Russia, this play originally portrayed Stalin in a bad light. Not because there was anything against him personally, but because it made him go down in a history books as a humourless bastard (on top of less serious charges such as, oh, mass murder). The original play only made it into rehearsals before Stalin personally banned it, and had the director included in one of his purges a few years later. Contrast this to last year’s Northern Broadside pick, The Government Inspector: Tsar Nicholas I, normally a notorious autocrat, thought it was hilarious and overruled his own censors. Anyway, this unsporting behaviour of Mr. S and subsequent Soviet leaders meant the play had to wait until 1979 for a performance. And whilst The Government Inspector has enjoyed endless adaptations on the easily transplantable subject of petty local corruption, most performances of The Suicide remain set in Russia.

But in Northern Broadsides, Deborah McAndrews and Conrad Nelson specialise in transplanting classic plays to modern day northern England, and now it’s the turn of The Suicide to get the treatment. And so, The Grand Gensture begins with Simeon Duff (Semyon Semyonovitch in the original) bemoaning his unemployment. With his wife as the sole breadwinner, Simeon thinks he’s on the scrapheap. He talks about ending it all, and even gets a suicide note on standby: “In the event of my death, I blame no-one.” When his wildly optimistic dream to make it big as a tuba player collapses, he’s really low. Still probably not sufficiently depressed to be that serious but shooting himself, but why let that silly detail get in the way of a good commercial opportunity? Continue reading

A Government Inspector: thank you, City Hall, for being a good sport

Northern Broadsides might be best known for their Shakespeare, but A Government Inspector shows that the partnership of Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson is another priceless string to their bow.

Scene from A Government Inspector

Public sector employers, for all their virtues, have never been renowned for a sense of humour. The UK civil service, for instance, goes to great lengths to say that Yes Minister is in no way an accurate portrayal of a 21st-century government department. (Footnote: I worked in one, and I can assure you the truthful response is: “Oh yes it is.”) But, in fairness, that’s nothing compared to Nickolai Gogol’s experience with The Government Inspector. When he wrote his satire of petty bureaucracy and corruption in 19th-century Russia, it was only due to the Tsar’s intervention he was able to stage it at all. But the royal endorsement didn’t do that much good, because the outrage from His Majesty’s loyal servants drove him to exile within a year.

Luckily for Gogol, he chose a subject with remarkable staying power. The story centres on a provincial Russian town that is corrupt through and through. The tinpot tyrant Mayor taking bribes from everyone, and the poor old shopkeepers at the bottom of the pile forced to pay these bribes in order to stay in business. All is well until word reaches the Mayor of a high-ranking government official coming to investigate the allegations of corruption. Don’t panic – just a temporary alteration to the pecking order. Just pass this man a few non-repayable loans and he’ll be on his way. But we never find out if this plan would have worked, because they mistake a low-grade civil servant staying at the inn for for the inspector – and worse, he’s a complete sponger only too happy to soak up the flattery and backhanders.

Needless to say, this play proves very popular for adaptations, because if you remove the references to Russia and the Tsar and it could be set anywhere. The most well-known sort-of adaptation is the Fawlty Towers episode The Hotel Inspectors. But whilst Basil Fawlty eventually wises up and the sponging hotel guest eventually gets his comeuppance, the Mayor in Gogol’s play remains blissfully oblivious. Even when the Mayor’s wife and daughter both start fawning over the fake inspector, the Mayor is happy to let him help himself as long as that buys him power or influence. And it get worse. Anyway, the Fawlty Towers episode is just one of many spin-offs, and the latest one is Northern Broadsides’ own adaptation, now titled A Government Inspector.

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