In these times of political polarity, austerity and widening class inequality, it seems that there has never been a better time to revive Dario Fo’s absurdist play about the lengths people will go to when they’re desperate.
- York Theatre Royal
- Till Saturday
Deborah McAndrews’ new version is a perfect fit for our times.
This Northern Broadsides and York Theatre Royal co-production opens with the protagonist Anthea (Lisa Howard) wheeling a trolley of looted food across the stage, to the sound of wailing sirens.
She’s never done anything like this before, but her logic is faultless. The price of food has risen so much that no-one can afford to buy it, and supermarkets have to donate it to the foodbank. When the people complain, they’re told “get it from there!”
Unemployed, kicked off benefits and five months behind with her rent, Anthea has nothing to lose. She joins a crowd of looters and pays what she can – nothing.
Each character in the play is pushed to the limits by a government whose machinations are memorably compared at one point to cleaning a toilet.
Starving telesales operator Maggie (Suzanne Ahmet) is roped into Anthea’s plot to hide the stolen food, while husband Lewis (Matt Connor) joins a protest about raised train fares by lying down on the tracks and feels alive for the first time.
Even principled union man Jack (Steve Huison) succombs to desperate measures. Tired of subsisting on meals including Birdseed Broth and Turkey Neck Gumbo, he steals bags of rice from a crashed lorry with the reasoning “the PM’s always going on about free trade – well you don’t get freer than that!”
Each of these snapping points triggers a series of absurd events which sends the plot spiralling in farcical directions.
Some of these are more successful than others. Puns that have to be pointed out are best forgotten. Anthea and Maggie’s attempt to smuggle out stolen food by pretending to be pregnant is stretched out over most of the evening, becoming tedious and convoluted.
As if speaking for the audience, a bemused Jack asks “What the f**k was that about?” Some well-executed slapstick with a cupboard and a corpse, however, is hilarious despite its predictability.
The four leads all impress with their energy, verbosity and physical comedy.
Special mention should also be made of fifth cast member Mike Hugo who plays the two funniest characters of the evening ‘The anti-capitalist commie constable’ and ‘The anti-commie capitalist sergeant’ – a good cop/bad cop pairing distinguished only by different accents, a badly glued-on moustache, and their stance on Marxism.
Hugo also plays Jack’s grandfather, an undertaker described with refreshing honesty in the programme as ‘a useful, if slightly morbid, plot device’ and the Optimistic Postman.
The political satire works considerably better than the farce and is brought right up to date by Deborah McAndrew’s fresh and witty script – with references to Brexit (cue groans from the audience) Boris Johnson and the NHS crisis.
Conrad Nelson’s direction keeps the pace from flagging, allows the cast plenty of fun with ad-libs and impresses most in the physical set pieces such as Maggie and Anthea’s dance-like scramble to hide stolen food in the flat.
They could be any of us
Set design is a characteristically well detailed two-room set by TopShow which perfectly evokes the concrete balconies of a city tower block.
The play concludes with the eviction of all 60 tenants in the block of flats and the subsequent rioting. Perhaps the people will finally take back control of their lives?
Perhaps not, as Jack observes, “Capitalism – it’s like the nine headed hydra. You cut off one head and two grow back.”
Despite its farcical longeurs, this is an intelligent play which isn’t afraid to show its politics. After singing The Internationale, the characters fade back into the backdrop. No longer four hungry people, or the evicted tenants of sixty flats, they could be any of us.
A sombre ending to an evening of freewheeling humour which leaves us with plenty of food for thought.