Low Pay? Don't Pay!

A frenetic, fast-paced comedy that combines cultural critique with good craic. Just don't laugh at your own jokes

Low Pay? Don’t Pay! from Bruiser Theatre Productions is the latest in their Didactic Series. This updated version of the 1974 Dario Fo classic is a riotous physical comedy, a charivari of jokes and pratfalls that turns the audiences laughter into social indictment.

‘Low Pay? Don’t Pay! Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!’ the characters chant as, laden with shopping, they march into view. The entire five-person cast is on stage at this point, but we are only meant to see Antonia and Margherita. The other actors function as a Greek Chorus, acting out a shadow play behind the chatting housewives.

It wouldn’t be fair to say that Antonia and Margherita are scraping by, since they’ve already reached bedrock. Both of them are behind in paying their bills, having to choose between that and putting at least some food on the table. There is no way Antonia could have afforded the bags of shopping she has enlisted her friend’s aid to carry.

When asked about how she paid for it Antonia lies: it was a raffle, a rich lover. Although she eventually admits the truth: along with other shoppers driven to distraction by rising prices she had shoplifted the goods from the supermarket.

Lying is Antonia’s default reaction throughout the play. Interestingly, of all the characters she is simultaneously the most dishonest and the most capable. It is Antonia, played with sly desperation by Rachel Murray, who chivies the play and other characters along at breakneck speed.

Desperate to hide her theft from her husband Giovanni, Antonia enlists the help of reluctant Margherita in befuddling and bamboozling first Giovanna, and then the police who come looking for the thieves. Margherita’s husband Luigi returns home and is lied to in turn, saints are cynically beatified and canonized in the front room and with every desperate patch she applies to her story Antonia’s doom looms ever closer.

There is a frenetic, fast-paced energy to Bruiser’s production that suits this play, mirroring Antonia’s quickness of mind. It is exhausting to watch, never mind act in, as the characters dash in and around, over and under the stage. With Bruiser’s trademark economy of set and casting, most of the actors double as window-sills or ledges or other characters at one point or another.

Richard Doubleday deserves special mention. In addition to a variety of inanimate objects he plays the undercover radical police sergeant, the police inspector, an undertaker and Giovanni’s father. By the time he took his bows he must have had friction burns from the number of quick-changes he had to do.

Yet despite the energy and charm of this production there are some flaws in the play that are stumbling blocks for the audience. One is the incomplete nature of Fo’s update, which leaves the audience anchorless and unsure. It makes modern day references to Lady GaGa and the current Pope, but the staging and underlying themes of the play remain unchanged. It makes an appeal to a public in the middle of an economic crisis, but doesn’t actually address the current economic issues. It feels incomplete.

So, unfortunately, does Drew Thompson’s performance of Giovanni. There is nothing overwhelmingly objectionable in his rendition. He simply seems badly cast in the role of the hot-tempered, politically passionate Giovanni. In his hands the character is good-natured and somewhat gormless, undercutting his supposed socialist acumen.

Combined with the unexpectedly touching pathos of Luigi and Margherita’s marriage – with Emma Little and Chris Patrick-Simpson flawlessly moving between tragedy and farce – and Antonia’s fluid wit, it sets up an odd dynamic on stage. It doesn’t help that Thompson frequently seems on the verge of laughing at his own lines.

This is still a marvelous, appealing play packed with wit and humour and the trademark Bruiser physicality. The few flaws do not overwhelm the massively positive elements of the play. If nothing else, it's worth catching the play for Emma Little's marvellous, rubber faced performance that threatens to steal every scene she is in.

Low Pay? Don't Pay! performances can be found in the Culture Live! listings.

Tammy Moore