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Review: They Don't Pay? We Won't Pay! at Liverpool Playhouse ***

Ten years ago this week, Northern Broadsides staged Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist at the Liverpool Playhouse.

The play was adapted by Deborah McAndrew and directed by Conrad Nelson.

And now here they are, Playhouse, Fo, McAndrew and Nelson, reunited a decade on in a new Broadsides production, this time of Fo’s second most famous work – Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay.

The Italian penned his political farce, which features housewives taking direct action against high prices charged in the shops, in 1974, a time of upheaval which in the UK was marked by not one but two general elections, strikes, an ongoing oil crisis, and the introduction of the Three Day Week.

On a happier note, Abba did with the Eurovision Song Contest and Liverpool’s Tom Baker became Doctor Who.

Anyway, McAndrew’s contemporary re-working is crystal clear that Fo’s tale remains bleakly relevant in 2018, if not for all the same reasons.

Anthea (Lisa Howard) takes part in a price protest riot at Aldi which turns in to a veritable supermarket sweep for the impoverished residents of this corner of an un-named northern town, a place where sadly it’s no longer strictly true that where there’s muck there’s brass, and the divide between the haves and have nots grows ever wider.

Matt Connor, Lisa Howard and Steve Huison in They Won't Pay? We Won't Pay. Photos: Nobby Clark

The resourceful housewife enlists the help of ditzy neighbour Maggie (Suzanne Ahmet) to hide her random loot from both her poor-but-scrupulously honest old Labour husband Jack (Steve Huison – the unforgettable Lomper in The Full Monty), Maggie's husband Lewis (Matt Connor) and the long arm of the law.

Cue an ensuing catalogue of mishaps, misunderstandings, cunning diversions, terrible puns, slapstick, panto-esque breaking of the fourth wall, improbable bumps and comedy moustaches as the ladies’ lies get increasingly out of hand.

There are some lovely lines and some enjoyable moments of physical comedy during the evening.

In fact, there’s a riotous, fast-paced farce in there somewhere just itching to break free, and a crack five-strong cast ready to deliver it. But at the moment They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! is rather struggling under the weight of its own worthiness.

I honestly believe that being fabulously funny and punching home a political message (without it becoming a polemic) aren’t mutually exclusive.

Suzanne Ahmet, Lisa Holland and Michael Hugo. Photo: Nobby Clark

McAndrew’s script is a lengthy litany of all society’s ills and frustrations – zero hours contracts, the decline of traditional industries, Brexit, ‘fat cats’ and bankers and ‘corporate bandits’, pygmy politicians, stagnating wages, the state of the NHS, homelessness, Boris ‘Macbeth’ Johnson, fake news, Trump, austerity – namechecked in a series of earnest speeches.

It’s rather like being trapped with the bore at a party and being convinced everyone else is having more fun in the other room.

And if the lighter, funnier second half is anything to go by, they most definitely are. For a start, every party should have a Michael Hugo. The Birkenhead-born actor was a hoot as Passepartout in Around the World in 80 Days at the Playhouse last year, and he has a whole lot of impish fun with a roster of roles including a Marxist constable and an anti-Marxist sergeant with a dodgy moustache (he also makes a brilliant old man).

The earnestness returns in what is a heartfelt epilogue, albeit punctuated by yet another of Hugo’s many characters.

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