Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!This production hits the exact tone that a performance of a Dario Fo play seems to need: blatantly over-the-top hammy ham ham. Broad physical humour, mugging to the audience, striking exaggerated poses, and pulling silly faces abound. Almost nothing could be considered too outrageous for this production, and it is an utter delight to watch.

One of Fo’s most famous plays, this lively interpretation conjures up its outrageous antics amidst a comparatively gritty setting that makes sure the playwright’s social ethics are not subsumed by all the comedy. Melanie Paul’s striking set design presents a semi-realist interior of a small working-class flat’s kitchen, whose walls give way to bare scaffolding as though to suggest a touch of postwar depression, or even merely to expose the artifice of the play. In either case, it allows for the Parade Studio’s balconies, still visible around the set, to be put to good use in outdoor scenes, as was a narrow area in front of the stage where various antics take place, including an uproarious homage to Benny Hill.

The costumes by Rita Carmody are also excellent, completing the non-specific period tone of the production and maintaining the set’s semi-realism. Carmody also contributes some interesting touches, such as giving each of the four main roles some article of clothing featuring an identical lozenge pattern (likely a reference to the Arlecchino figure from commedia dell'arte, one of Fo’s influences), as well as more unashamedly dressing a police inspector as Clouseau and an undertaker like an Edgar Allan Poe character.

Craig Ilott has directed a terrific show, an excellently conceived and realised production which totally transfixes you with its mirth and stuns with its sheer kinetic and verbal energy. Its only major flaw is a somewhat overly-worthy interpretation of its “message”-driven ending, something that rather ground this performance to a halt, and which other productions I have seen managed to incorporate more smoothly.

Playing multiple roles with each more absurd than the last, Anthony Gooley had the front row (his flatmates, apparently) in utter hysterics: doubled over, tears running down their faces, bellowing with laughter. The rest of the crowd wasn’t far behind, myself included. His largest two roles as the highly eccentric Sergeant and Inspector were such unceasing fountains of hilarity that one had little chance to catch one’s breath, let alone concentrate on the content of the scenes. Although it seems churlish to criticise such a prodigious comic talent who had the audience in the palm of his hand, Gooley’s main scenes in Act 1 were so unrelenting, with his gags coming literally seconds apart, that to say he was “pulling focus” would be the understatement of the year.

Indeed, I felt a little sorry for the other excellent actors who had to share the stage with him, as he was not only stealing the scenes, but taking hostages and driving the getaway car as well. Sometimes comedy is about letting the other performer get the laugh, and with Gooley’s four separate characters and unscripted fifth role as a dancing stagehand at the head of the play, one vaguely got the impression that he was given carte blanche by Ilott, perhaps more than was really warranted. Still, the fellow is phenomenally funny and I would dearly love to see him in the central role of “the Maniac” in Fo’s other comic masterpiece, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, a role for which he’d be perfectly suited.

For my money the best performer of the cast was Emma Palmer as Antonia. Incredibly funny but not as self-indulgent as Gooley, she grabbed the role of the feisty housewife with both hands. To my mind she of all the cast most perfectly hit the mark for the comic style the play needed. Totally in character at all times, her exaggerated mode of performance was nonetheless expertly balanced, incorporating stylistic flavours from pantomime, music-hall and commedia dell'arte (in fact she would be quite stellar in a commedia production, I’m sure), rolling her eyes, waving her arms, pulling faces and poses with great precision, not to mention running around and around the kitchen table full-tilt in heels! Partly due to Antonia’s role as the instigator of much of the play’s mayhem, but mostly due to her formidable comedic talent, Palmer is the glue that held this production together.

Not that one should diminish the excellent contributions of the remaining cast, all of whom were very good indeed. Julia Ohannessian gamely hides her considerable good looks in the ugly-duckling role of Antonia’s hapless and much put-upon offsider Margherita, generously providing laughs more through her reactions to others than by mugging away herself. Similarly, her husband Luigi (Don Kountouris) is a more reactive than generative comedic presence, very funny in his own right but definitely the play’s “straight man” by comparison to his fellows.

Rounding out the cast was Pacharo Mzembe as Giovanni, who slots somewhere between his “wife” Palmer and Kountouris’ levels: playing it straighter than the women but quite prepared to milk a laugh at times. He perfectly captured Giovanni’s credulous nature and slightly sanctimonious bluster, his impeccable timing knowing just when to stretch a joke or let it breathe.

Dario Fo is a master of socially-relevant comedy that seems just as biting across different decades and continents. You will hardly find a better production than this.

NIDA presents
Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!
by Dario Fo | Translated by Lino Pertile | Adaptation by R. Colvill and R. Walker

Venue: Parade Theatres, NIDA | 215 Anzac Parade, Kensington
Dates/Times: Friday 13, Saturday 14, Monday 16, Tuesday 17 April at 7.30pm, Saturday 14 at 2pm
Tickets: Adult $25 | Conc $15 | Groups 10+ $15
Bookings: 132 849 or

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