New Vic Theatre until Saturday 10 Nov
“The Prime Minister’s always banging on about free trade — and it doesn’t get much freer than this.” Anthea shows her friend Maggie the groceries she’s ‘liberated’ from the local supermarket during a riotous response by hard-up women to the latest round of price increases.
When Anthea’s moralising husband comes home early after disturbances at his works’ canteen, the last of the hastily stashed goods are stuffed up Maggie’s coat-front. The audience is in stitches before any mention of pregnancy and the laughter keeps tumbling out as surely as the assorted contents of Maggie’s ‘womb’ when the farcical attempts at cover-up grow ever more ludicrous.
Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay was written by Dario Fo in 1974. This new adaptation by Deborah McAndrew for Northern Broadsides moves it from Italy to northern England and dresses it in the language of contemporary issues, from austerity and Brexit to BOGOF deals and ‘bags for life’ that are full of junk food.
Keeping much of Fo’s original detail and intention throws up occasional disjoints of time and culture: the trade-unionist soapbox harangues, the brine-like waters breaking to deliver olives. But it works a dream thanks to the anarchic inventiveness and comic pace of Fo and the skill with which director Conrad Nelson and his admirable cast deliver it.
Lisa Howard’s Anthea brings a cheerful energy to her many groan-inducing puns and a winning charm to her madcap explanations – never more so than when she recruits Saint Eulalia to explain her own sudden pregnancy.
Steve Huison as her 1970’s throwback husband Jack wants “dignity, not charity” and bridges the time gap convincingly when asked whether he is for Brexit or against it: “That’s not the question.”
Michael Hugo is in his element playing five roles and clearly loving every minute of it. “It’s a lonely life being a Marxist policeman,” he confesses in his first incarnation. But he’s never without the admiring company of the audience, who are with him every step – even when he’s mincing his steps across stage in the glamorous footwear of a female funeral director.
The physical humour, which builds to a frenzy in the second half, is an absolute joy. The man-sized cupboard, the welder’s oxygen tank, the empty coffin – you can see it all coming but it’s brought off with such perfect timing and élan that you laugh all the more for it.
References to food banks and enforced evictions remind us, like the Marxist copper, that “injustice is not against the law” and the underlying messages are as grimly relevant today as ever. I appreciated, nevertheless, Michael Hugo’s postman’s cameo that gave us at the end a symbol of hope.