Browse reviews

Brighton Year-Round 2023

Low Down

I love the way that theatre can be used to slip subversive ideas past the authorities, and also our own prejudices, by wrapping them in comedy.  Aristophanes did this in ‘Lysistrata’, where he wrote a powerful anti-war polemic – against the seemingly never-ending conflict between Athens and Sparta – by dressing it up as a sex farce. The heroine initiates a sex strike by the Greek women, to force their men to end the war, and all the frustrated men end up with enormous erections under their cloaks.  Hilarious, but also putting over a political message that would have got the playwright exiled (or worse) if he’d written it straight.


Two thousand years later, Dario Fo has done the same thing in his plays, especially ‘Accidental Death of an Anarchist’ and ‘Can’t Pay?, Won’t Pay!’.   He’s attacking extra-judicial police killings in the first, and economic and political problems in the second. They’re both set in Italy in the nineteen seventies, but both have very clear parallels with contemporary Britain.  And both are about radical politics – written as farce.

Another thing that ‘Can’t Pay?, Won’t Pay!’ has in common with ‘Lysistrata’ is that they use almost the same gag. In the Greek play it’s hidden erections – in the Italian play it’s stolen groceries hidden under women’s coats. Driven to desperate measures by high prices and lack of money, the working class women of Milan have looted supermarket shelves and brought home whatever they can carry.

Getting the loot back to the flat is easy – the problems start when all those packets and tins have to be hidden from the police, who come searching the apartment blocks; and from the women’s husbands too, most of whom are trade unionists but also staunch believers in the upright morality of ‘Law and Order’ …

So Toni (Fenia Gianni) and Maggie (Sarah Widdas) hide bags of groceries under their coats, which makes Maggie look very pregnant. This stretches the belief of Toni’s husband Gio (Jon Terry), who’s amazed that his wife’s friend has produced a baby so quickly. – “I didn’t even know she was pregnant!”. It’s classic farce from there on, with Maggie and especially Toni coming up with increasingly convoluted and bizarre explanations for the situation.

There’s also the police to worry about. Gio has been condemning the actions of the supermarket women, and trumpeting his own spotless morality, when the apartment is invaded by a hapless police Sergeant (John Newcombe) who actually has to be pulled in through the window by Gio. The Sergeant doesn’t do much searching – he’s too busy telling Gio about his Anarchist beliefs. Gio, for his part, thinks that the policeman might be an agent provocateur – see how Dario Fo splices situations which really did occur, into his comedy …

Eventually the Sergeant leaves, but he’s almost immediately replaced by a much more sinister Inspector.   This is John Newcombe again, but now in the cap of a superior police rank, and sporting a luxuriant black moustache.  From that moment on the action becomes more frenzied, with Gio, the two women, and Gio’s friend (and Maggie’s husband) Lui (Phillip Willet) all frantically trying to escape the clutches of the Inspector.  The upstairs room at The Poets isn’t very large, especially filled to capacity with an audience of thirty or so, but they managed a series of chases – round and round the living room of the apartment and occasionally disappearing through the door to the pub stairs outside.

In fact, they did much more than just chase around frenetically. This show completely shattered the ‘fourth wall’ and gave the audience loads of involvement in the action.  When Toni first arrives home with the looted groceries, she hides a lot of them under the seats in the front row, so we had to move our feet for her. Later, there’s a sequence where a crashing lorry has shed its load of sacks of sugar. The police Inspector orders Gio and Lui to move them to a safe place, so the men send the sacks (actually filled with straw) along the rows of seating and we pass them, neighbour to neighbour.  Quite apart from the physical involvement, it made us feel complicit – we were part of the story ourselves.

Incidentally – this activity proves to be an epiphany for Gio and Lui, making them question the virtue of honesty, and a lot of the sacks end up back at Gio’s apartment.

As well as the economic situation, with working class people beset by high prices and the probability of unemployment following factory closures, Dario Fo has the Catholic Church in his sights. There’s a running gag about The Pope’s instructions on contraception, and how his words can be variously interpreted. The apartment itself is sketched in by just a few props and pieces of furniture – and a lot of groceries – but there’s also a large framed portrait of His Holiness, which Maggie gazes at as she (constantly) crosses herself.

There’s a string of washing too, set just on one wall, but evoking the washing lines you see hung between working class apartment balconies in cities like Turin or Venice.  The  triada team has managed to evoke Fo’s Milan by just a few deft touches. Minimalism in action – I wonder if there’s an Italian equivalent of ‘Less is More’ …

The show’s Director Sascha Cooper got powerful performances from every member of her cast – the action is frenetic and the pace never lets up.    triada theatre is a Greco-British company tackling big social issues in intimate, diverse spaces.  It speaks volumes for triada’s power, that they can produce the madcap energy of this Dario Fo farce, when the last time I saw them they were giving us the brooding intensity of Arial Dorfman’s ‘Death And The Maiden’.

In the Dorfman play, the audience waited breathlessly to see whether Fenia Gianni’s Paulina Sallas would kill John Newcombe’s Dr Miranda, the torturer from her past.   In this production the audience was constantly convulsed by laughter at Gianni’s attempts to avoid her increasingly weird explanations being caught out by Newcombe’s Inspector … and his moustache.

At the end, the whole cast stood before us, fists raised, and actors and audience joined together to hammer out the play’s message –

Can’t Pay!, Won’t Pay!.  Can’t Pay!, Won’t Pay!.  Can’t Pay!, Won’t Pay!.

What a range.  What a company.


Strat Mastoris