The Government Inspector

In a little Russian town, cut off from the rest of the world, a rumour is brewing. It seems there’s a Government Inspector on his way. What does he want? When is he going to get there? And who is he? These are the problems facing the Police Governor and the mob of ridiculous provincials that he allows to run the town. One case of mistaken identity later and they’ve taken in a penniless self-important clerk from St Petersburg and his manservant… and, like the wine, the money soon begins to flow.Nikolai Gogol’s satirical masterpiece was originally so savage, so biting, so incendiary that it forced him into exile for the rest of his life. Gravel Theatre’s production of it, unfortunately, is not only tame but, for the most part, it’s quite dull as well. This is a heavily stylised production utilising a huge number of visual references from film and television. The cast have been made up to look like The Joker, they move like they’re in John Landis’ Thriller video and sound like they’ve wandered out of The League of Gentlemen. The Charity Commissioner is a carbon copy of Dr Stangelove, glove and all. I’m not sure what the effect was meant to achieve. Perhaps director, Owen Roberts, believed that it would be funny to have his cast gurn and make bizarre high-pitched squeals. That’s definitely part of the problem here. The company know this play is funny. And maybe they believe that wildly over-the-top performances and X-Factor gags make their production funnier. But such is the Catch-22 with comedy: the second the actors know a play is funny, it ceases to be so. It’s an old joke: what’s my motivation? Here, the characters are trying to be so funny that there’s no reason for them to do what they do half the time and, worst of all, it makes the play’s story completely incomprehensible. I was left asking why do these people not work everything out much sooner? The brilliance of the play lies in the speed of its speed and its satire of recognisable types of people usually found in power. This is why the play has survived for more than 150 years; it’s almost like The Wire of its time. Roberts has misunderstood that in the whole pitching of this production. If you’re going to dress people up like Dr Strangelove and make Louis Walsh jokes go do pantomime. This is a play about the problem with career politicians, the abundance of red-tape and hyper-bureaucracy. In a world where we have the politicians we do, the systems we do, the society we do this play would be so much more effective if it were played straight. This is a play about New Labour and its backbiting downfall. This is about the death of the Bush administration. This is about the absurdity of holding on to white knight politicians like Cameron and Obama. Unfortunately, none of this makes it into Gravel’s production.There are some noteworthy performances. Daniel Curtis’ Governor is a frenetic, whirling dervish of a performance, made all the funnier for his looking like a British Michael J Fox. Although I can’t agree with the direction of the character Curtis throws himself into the performance brilliantly pulling off its difficult vocal and physical requirements. And, although not always engaging, Ciaran Dowd’s Khlestakov, the St Petersburg clerk, is often wryly underplayed thanks mainly to Dowd’s comic timing. The rest of the cast are not weak, by any means, but often their performances sit at odds with the text. Marya, for example, is the Governor’s 18 year old daughter. The play marks her out as a snotty, pretentious social climber. Here, however, she’s played like a 12 year old and, not only does it not work with the text, but it also makes parts of Act II quite uncomfortable to watch.According to the programme note, Gravel is dedicated to making theatre that is entertaining first and challenging second. They then state, quite ominously, that this is their first production. There’s no doubt that The Government Inspector could have been the perfect play for them to use as a springboard. Unfortunately, Gravel aren’t there yet.

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The Blurb

There is a town. A town where vice and corruption are rife. where the rich get richer and the poor get flogged, and where justice is as cheap as puppies. Isolated from modern society, unburdened by morality and forgotten by the rest of the world…Until now! There is an Inspector coming. A Government Inspector, with secret orders. And he’s travelling incognito!

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