The most surprising thing about Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! by Dario Fo and Franca Rame is that it is based on fact. During the economic crisis in the early 1970s Italian workers spontaneously rebelled against spiralling prices for basic commodities occupying squats and refusing to pay increases in transport, fuel and food costs. This programme of self-reduction sets the background for the play.
Antonia (Lynda Rooke) takes part in a mass refusal to pay high food costs and, along with her neighbours, effectively loots the local supermarket. She shares her haul with her friend Margherita (Kate Coogan) but has to resort to increasingly desperate measures to conceal the grub from her moralistic husband Giovanni (Colin Conner) and the police.
Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! is a strangely constructed play in which farce sits uneasily next to political debate and real anger at injustice. Director Elizabeth Newman does not try to merge the various elements but rather constructs a breathless production in which the characters jump from impassioned argument to slapstick without seeming contrived. Newman certainly delivers a very funny production with some spectacular pratfalls and excellent farcical and even surreal moments. But playing for laughs means that the element of danger is lacking. There is no sense of a society in which the authorities are willing to ruthlessly repress dissent.
The audience is very much a part of the production being surrounded by political placards and addressed direct by the cast. Newman retains the original 1970s period setting. This is an inspired choice; for one thing it allows us to savour Amanda Stoodley’s spot-on recreation of bland 1970s décor and awful fashion sense. It also makes the parallels with the present day ongoing economic recession all the more sharp reminding us that, in the past, people responded to economic injustice with action rather than apathy.
The period in which the play is set featured the rise of the feminist movement and the play centres on Lynda Rooke’s husky-voiced and innovative but increasingly fatalistic Antonia who makes a fine comic partnership with Kate Coogan’s scowling and desperate Margherita.
The soft-spoken and understated Colin Connor makes a strong impact nudging the tone of the play towards the surreal. Connor plays Giovanni as an innocent blissfully unaware of what is going on under his nose and in the wider world. The conclusion to Act One is a gloriously silly effort by the gormless Giovanni to explain the facts of life and intimate workings of female plumbing which he obviously only half-understands.
Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! is an inspiring reminder of a time when people really didn’t let the bastards grind them down and is a very funny night out.