Brighton Year-Round 2023
A cost-of-living revolution in St James Street? You’d better believe it as Triada Theatre kick off the weekend with Dario Fo’s 1974 Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! at the Lantern Theatre. Superb, energised theatre, rough occasionally, but mostly very-well performed, imaginatively staged, rapturously received. Now get out on the streets.
Directed by Sasha Cooper, Designed by Triada Theatre, Lit by Cliff Dowding of Triada.
Further performances tba
A cost-of-living revolution in St James Street? Co-Op invaded by scores of women liberating salad and anything else, including rabbits’ heads and superior dog-food? You’d better believe it as Triada Theatre kick off the weekend with Dario Fo’s 1974 Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! at the Lantern Theatre.
Fo’s political farce against sky-high prices naturally couldn’t be more topical. Fo (1926-2016), a Nobel laureate whose critique-by-laughter is as relevant today as nearly 50 years ago, knows how to turn Marx to message, farce to fight.
It worked. Two weeks after the play opened, women in Milan did just that, on a large scale. They paid – pre-inflation prices, not those hiked with massive profits. And were found not guilty!
It’s had its effect internationally, Fo’s most popular play after his 1970 Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Fo’s play translated with this title by Lino Pertile in 1975, became the anti-Poll Tax slogan, passing into English. Professor Pertile himself incidentally, lived nearby in College Place when Professor at Sussex in the 1980s. How revolutions come home to roost.
Let’s start with the rational. Don’t think it ends there. How can a police inspector get pregnant? Through saints of course. Sasha Cooper keeps this furious, funny pace mostly airborne.
Toni (Fenia Gianni) confesses to friend Maggie (Sarah Widdas) she’s taken part in a spontaneous “liberation” of groceries by hundreds of women frustrated by spiralling food costs. They’re to be cut off from gas, electricity and thrown out for non-payment of rent too.
Gianni relates this full pelt in a magnificent clarion that never quite modulates. Facially though she expresses wonderfully. Her Toni is wholly believable, though a few quieter asides might help. A born provocateur she’s close to her character too, the soul of Triada. Widdas’ Maggie is nuanced, timorous, appalled, overborn by irresistible, enraged Toni. Widdas’ is a performance of quiet stature – pulling confusion from absurdity.
But. The police are raiding houses to recover evidence. More pressing though, is strait-laced husbands. At least Toni’s son moved out, Maggie couldn’t have children – Fo usefully disposes of dependants.
In the first of many interactive scenes, the audience in traverse are invited to help hide (real) groceries under their seats, in the most creative use of the theatre I’ve seen here. Potatoes roll on the floor. Maggie munches a carrot.
It’s a superbly energised production, makes use of every nook, crannies we’ve never seen before. And – the women will pretend Maggie’s pregnant with shopping! Men are so ignorant. Miraculously. Toni’s the “storyteller” Maggie asserts; born of desperation, her spiralling confections fuel farce.
But. Toni’s partner Gio (Jon Terry) is the soul of Communist order. Only unions and organised resistance work: wildcat acts bring government wrath, splits unity, alienates people to win over.
Really? Where’s the resistance Toni would like to know. Fo’s real target was the moderating line of the Italian communist party (the translation cuts some of this out) but it works perfectly for strikers today taking on ‘moderate’ union leaders over the past year.
Terry’s havering party-man, showing Gio eloquent, a leader of sorts – his friend Lul looks up to him; that’s going to change. Terry exudes a mix of anxiety and finger-wagging right-mindedness, Gio a faltering law-giver.
So what happens when Maggie’s water – or olives – break with brine, and after they’ve exited the husband, famished turns up at Gio’s and sees olives on the floor? He doesn’t know what Gio thinks he knows… Too late. Gio looks at the stolen dogfood his friend’s just eaten obliviously. Maybe it’s not so bad.
Maggie’s husband Lul (Philip Willet) comes into his own here. Blissfully confused in other ways he turns more anarchic himself; at bottom Everyman has a finer grasp of what’s happening.
Willet crosses a touch of Baldrick with a man who cuts through Gio’s falutin’, delivering facts with a measure of dignity. Never mind he’s confused by his wife’s miraculous pregnancy, or Gio’s credulous assertion, via Toni that she and Maggie are womb-swapping in a baby transplant to help Maggie out. Where’s the transplant clinic both men cry?
With delicious twists Gio’s beloved party-line gets tripped up on its back. First, men have taken law into their hands, lorries offloaded; soon the audience is invited to pass round sacks of sugar, rice. Second, Lul on the shift after Gio reveals they’ve been made redundant. What price moderation now?
Before all this enter the fifth cast-member as querulous subversive, Sergeant, (John Newcombe), who later plays moustachio’d fascist Inspector, and doddery Old Man (Gio’s father, who spills the groceries so to speak). Newcombe’s a superbly physical actor, farcical, Faydeau-like in his bendy bobby-dom. Voice all menace, confiding and shock.
Rushing to inspect the premises after the women have exited with contraband (hiding them at Gio’s father’s place) Sergeant surprises Gio with apparently revolutionary politics. Gio’s suspicious: “But not all policeman think like you. Some of them like being policeman.”
Sergeant’s smooth: “Sure, some guys buy into it. They get off giving orders. They need to oppress somebody else to feel good about themselves.”
True Sleeper or? That’s left tantalising; his alter-ego, Inspector turns up, pointing a gun. They know what happens to accidental deaths.
We’re confronted with revolving duets as first women, then men, then policemen rush in and out of the house. One scene outdoors – opposite the main set – features the men being tossed sacks through an opening.
Sergeant’s complicit. But his oppo? A Keystone Cops chase round the central Lantern pillar, a confrontation with the women by Inspector and farce turns Magic Realism.
Inspector’s religious credulity is played – never heard of Saint Uulula when women assume pregnancy for a celebratory week? Authority and the Party aren’t Fo’s only targets as Pope Paul VI’s continually guyed. Those who don’t believe are struck blind: fortuitously the lights go off.
Lantern lighting can challenge here, even glare, but the blue lights work excellently; we see through gloaming: Inspector collapses. Possibly dead, he’s revived, hot-air-pumped. This is very neat theatre: the Inspector expands, thinks himself divinely punished.
As Gianni’s Toni rounds on Gio: “I’m fed up with your hot air… your speeches about responsibility about sacrifice… about the dignity of tightening your belt, about your pride about being working class! And who are these workers? Who is this working class? It’s us, didn’t you know?…”
How does it all end? We’ve been continually exhorted to join the chorus; so only one way. Superb, energised theatre, rough occasionally, but mostly very-well performed, imaginatively staged, rapturously received. Now get out on the streets.