Can't Pay? Won't Pay!

Dario Fo and Franca Rame, English version by Lino Pertile, adapted by Bill Colvill and Robert Walker

Octagon Theatre, Bolton

From 25 April 2013 to 18 May 2013

Review by David Chadderton

The Octagon pays its first visit to Italian political farceur Dario Fo since 2006, when physical comedy specialist Paul Hunter guest-directed Fo's most famous play Accidental Death of an Anarchist.

Directed by Elizabeth Newman, this 1974 piece is set in an Italy of high inflation, low wages and a corrupt political establishment and police force, and the adaption used here leaves it in that period and location. Antonia comes back from the supermarket to tell Margherita a lengthy tale of a revolt in protest at the high prices of essential goods in which the shoppers took food without paying for it.

Antonia herself has bags and bags of food on unauthorised credit, but she must hide it firstly from her husband, Giovanni, who is inconveniently honest about such matters, and from the police who storm the block searching all the flats. Giovanni comes home before they have hidden everything, and so Antonia has to invent elaborate lies about why Margherita looks suddenly heavily pregnant when there was no sign of this when her husband Luigi left for work.

There is a tangle of improbably twists and turns and embarrassing situations that require more and more elaborate lies from Antonia, all the ingredients required for a classic farce. On top of this are Fo's satirical digs at the Italian establishment of the 1970s (and later), some of which would have been relevant to British society of the same period.

The scene where the supposedly pregnant Margherita is being lugged about in a very undignified manner by Antonia and the police inspector in front of Giovanni as a jar of olives begins to leak under her coat and an ambulance waits for her downstairs is hilarious with some great comic performances and good comic timing. Unfortunately this is an oasis in a desert of ill-judged comic staging.

Fo's humour can trace its roots back to the Italian semi-improvised Commedia dell'Arte with its stock characters and slapstick routines; our closest equivalent is probably panto, with a bit of good ol' British bedroom farce thrown in. Any element of naturalism in the performance will betray the ludicrousness of the situations and kill the humour—you can't give the audience a moment of reflection or you will lose them.

The dialogue sounds like it has been written for stand-up comedians, especially the fast-talking American comics like Abbott and Costello or the Marx Brothers or even Sergeant Bilko. While a lot of very funny lines still come through, this production never finds a performance style to fit the writing and so instead of being bombarded with a constant barrage of hilarious business and gags, there is a lot of confusing tedium with a laugh every so often.

Antonia is the lynchpin of the play, and though Lynda Rooke attacks her with gusto she never finds the stand-up comic style that would reward the tremendous effort she is expending with the laughs she should be getting. Colin Connor as Giovanni makes the most of some of his comic lines and becomes hilariously camp at one point, but again the pace of the production gets in the way of the real comedy—the same could be said of Kate Coogan's Margherita, although her use of fake labour pains as warning grunts is very effective.

Danny Cunningham's performance as Margherita's husband Luigi is too low-key to find the humour. Eamonn Riley's multiple role as the sergeant, inspector, undertaker and old man stands apart from the others as being rather silly and unrealistic, because he comes closest to a style that would actually make this play work.

It is common for a comedy, particularly a farce, to not find its ideal comic timing until it has been before an audience for a while. I would like to think that this were the case here, but sadly I think that the production has fundamentally missed the style of the play and that it needed a director with a much better understanding of farce and of the complex business of comic staging and timing in general to make this work.