Deborah McAndrew, in adapting Dario Fo’s celebrated political farce for Northern Broadsides, faces the difficulty that what was politically relevant in Milan in 1970 has a fairly tenuous connection with today’s West Yorkshire – apart from, that is, authority’s perennial tendency to corruption and cock-ups.
In fact, she avoids drastic transformation. Even the names remain Italian, giving rise to one of several neat out-of-character asides to the audience, though the context is updated and localised: the credit crunch is with us and Yorkshire place-names are used to good humorous effect. However, the political focus is blunted. The big speech near the end – the equivalent of Inspector Goole’s “fire and blood and anguish” – points the finger at the invasions of Iraq and Georgia. It’s hardly original and it doesn’t particularly fit the play.
It is, however, an immensely entertaining evening, with a stylish and witty script, finely-honed ensemble playing and some dangerously manic physical theatre. Things start off almost too frantically, with The Maniac on the loose in the police station, a crazed combination of impressionist and contortionist, terrorising the preening Detective Inspector Bertozzo. When he convinces the senior ranks on the fourth floor that he is a visiting judge investigating the case of a supposed anarchist who fell/jumped/was pushed from the window of that very office, he sets off a chain of re-enactments of ever more implausible scenarios.
Conrad Nelson directs an extremely well drilled production which yet manages to suggest the improvisatory: a mixture of slickly co-ordinated movement and “Is that in the script?” moments. Dawn Allsopp’s workmanlike set scores in the detail (boxfiles labelled “Alibis” and “Open and Shut Cases”) and its practicality for farce (man in filing cabinet).
At the centre of the production is a remarkable performance from Michael Hugo as The Maniac. Whether vaulting atop filing cabinets, assuming a spurious judicial dignity or making a character out of kilt, crutch, false hand, glass eye and wooden leg (Dawn Allsopp’s imagination running riot!), he remains totally in control and breathtakingly energetic. All three police inspectors and the predictable female-crusading journalist inhabit their stereotypes with relish and uninhibited self-parody and Matt Connor’s pair of eager, imitative Police Constables (ever ready with tea and biscuits) are a constant delight, an occasional haven of underplaying.
Sometimes the production is too inventive for its own good – the evening could, with profit, be 15 minutes shorter – but Broadsides’ take on Dario Fo is refreshingly bold and extremely audience-friendly.