Need a good laugh? Then No Pay? No Way! could be just what you need.

Let’s face it – the news headlines are pretty depressing right now, what with the aftermath of the bushfires, climate change, the coronavirus, sports rorts, banking misconduct, stagnant wages, and self-interested, sloganeering politicians, for starters.

Italian playwright Dario Fo had plenty to put the boot into when he wrote his political satire Sotto Paga! Non Si Paga! with his wife Franca Rame in 1974. Originally translated in English as Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay, Marieke Hardy has done a new adaptation for Sydney Theatre Company called No Pay? No Way!, which sticks faithfully to Fo’s story, while putting more of an emphasis on the two central women.

Helen Thomson, Catherine Văn-Davies and Glenn Hazeldine. Photograph © Prudence Upton

More than 40 years since it was written, it’s disconcerting how relevant Fo’s farcical story about exploited workers, greedy politicians, ruthless employers and corrupt banks remains. But at least it makes us laugh, uproariously at times, at the things that so often rile us. In fact, the production is a riotous, ridiculous delight with a sting in its tail.

Set in an outer suburb of Milan in the 1970s, the canny, quick-witted Antonia (Helen Thomson) arrives home with bags of “liberated” food, which she has persuaded her naïve, Catholic best friend Margherita (Catherine Văn-Davies) to help her carry. Food prices have doubled overnight and the angry, local women – who are struggling to pay the rent and put a meal on the table – have rioted at the supermarket, making off with whatever stolen goods they can carry.

Antonia is worried that her Communist husband Giovanni (Glenn Hazeldine), a hard-working union member, will make her return it, so she and Margherita hide as much as they can. As the police arrive to investigate, Margherita stuffs the last few bags under her coat.

Determined to keep their decent but gullible husbands in the dark about the food, outwit the police, and explain why Margherita is suddenly pregnant, the women resort to ever-more unlikely stories involving baby transplants, Saint Eulalia, and fake pregnancies. Fo also adds dog food, a corpse, a coffin and two wildly different policemen who look awfully alike to the plot, and the play morphs into a ludicrous, madcap romp, while ensuring its political points also hit home.

Helen Thomson, Catherine Văn-Davies, Glenn Hazeldine and Aaron Tsindos. Photograph © Prudence Upton

Hardy’s adaptation is genuinely funny, with some wonderfully witty dialogue that builds joke on joke. Hearing Giovanni repeat some of the yarns he’s been spun by Antonia to Margherita’s husband Luigi (Rahel Romahn) is just one of many moments that has you laughing out loud. The plot does drag a bit in the second act (a cut wouldn’t go astray) and starts to feel too farcical, but overall it’s a fun, sharp script.

Sarah Giles, who directed an inspired, utterly hilarious, all-female production of Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist for STC in 2018, directs No Pay? No Way! Once again, she brings a keen sense of comic nous and theatrical intelligence to the production. Without giving too much away, her inclusion of the stage crew at the start of the second act is ingenious.

Charles Davis’ design is the perfect setting and has its own sense of fun. The way the façade of the block of apartments in which Antonia and Margherita live turns at the beginning of the production and bears down on the audience, while the upper level realigns to show the flats opposite through the windows, is brilliant, and had the opening night audience hooting with appreciative laughter immediately.

The naturalistically designed apartment looks suitably cheap and cheerful, and the way the set then divides for the second act is cleverly done. The costuming is also spot-on, with Antonia in a bright but cheap pink dress, Margherita in a more frowsy get-up, their husbands in work clothes, and the policemen in smart but comical uniforms.

Lit by Paul Jackson, it is a spot-on design. With Steve Francis’s music and sound design – which includes some jaunty Italian songs, and ends the production with the Italian protest folk song Bella Ciao – it all works a treat.

Giles has cast it exceptionally well, and brings the actors together as a tightly knit ensemble, at the heart of which is the always mesmerising Helen Thomson. Wherever she is on stage, that’s where you look. Her comic timing is delicious, from the way she delivers the tongue-in-cheek dialogue, to the perfect pauses she includes, to the expressions on her face as she quickly tries to come up with the next brazen yarn. She really makes it look as if she is thinking on her feet, while bringing the audience in on the joke with knowing looks. She really is the ant’s pants, giving a blissfully funny performance.

Aaron Tsindos (behind the blind), Glenn Hazeldine and Rahel Romahn. Photograph © Prudence Upton

Surrounding her are a terrific cast. The way Glenn Hazeldine’s hungry Giovanni surreptitiously ponders the can of dog food is hilarious, as is the way Rahel Romahn then gets in on the action, which had the audience screaming with laughter. Catherine Văn-Davies lends good support as Margherita, who is reluctantly swept up in all the shenanigans. Aaron Tsindos does a brilliant job of differentiating the Sergeant and Inspector, and is particularly funny as the politicised Sergeant who is sympathetic to the view of the Marxist workers.

Act One works like a charm. The second act does start to feel too hysterical. Tsindos takes the undertaker a step too far, playing him like a pantomime character who has been seduced by Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. The plot twists keep twisting and it starts to feel a tad too silly, but then Giles reins it all back in with a melancholy, moving finale that highlights the serious social commentary behind the crazy comedy.

The opening night audience clearly had an absolute ball, in fact I haven’t heard an audience laugh so loud for a long time.

No Pay? No Way! plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until March 20, and at Riverside Theatres Parramatta, April 1 – 4


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