After weeks of rehearsals, the cast and crew of 20 unveiled their revival of Gogol’s timeless The Government Inspector, transporting the Big School audience to Russia in 1836. Here Mr Nick Russell, reviews the opening night:
This is a gem of a play. Set in some provincial backwater of Imperial Russia, it depicts a town crammed with incompetent mavericks, a remote godforsaken hole where corruption is low-scale but widespread.
At the centre of the circus is Ben Abbot’s Mayor, a man who cannot control a sensible sentence, let alone a district: this is a man who cannot make the sign of the cross without punching himself in the face.
Like everyone else in the town, he believes he really is rather marvellous, and is utterly unaware that when he pops on his florid hat he transforms into a walking trifle.
Panic sets in at the thought of an impending ‘incognito’ inspection from the government in St Petersberg. Conscious of his corruption, the Mayor (Abbot (C)) sets about doing all that he can to conceal it – the thought of cleaning up his town and providing some moral backbone never enters his pretty round head. He calls upon two town squires, Bobchinksy (Ben Kersley (H)) and Dobshinsky (Bruno Dent (H)), and tells them to be on high alert. Unfortunately, Bobchinksy and Dobchinksy are a pair of blundering buffoons with more than a passing similarity to Laurel (Kersley) and Hardy (Dent) and they spend much of their time biffing each other to oblivion.
But the prospect of a visit from a powerful mysterious man from glamourous St. Petersberg – a city with actual restaurants and pavements and clean cutlery – triggers an altogether different reaction from the Mayor’s wife and daughter, Anna (Nara Aligulova (Cr)) and Maria (Eva Saunders (M)). Cocooned in an upper floor of the Mayoral residence they normally spend their days at the window competing with each other to flirt and flutter at every half-able-bodied man on the street. Anna, played with haughty allure by Aligulova, believes she really ought to be living the high life in St Petersberg, while Maria, innocent and yet keen to be knowing, has a thing for any man who sports a moustache. Both are ready to eat the inspector for breakfast.
Somehow, Bobchinksy and Dobchinksy detect that there’s something suspect about a guest at the local inn; a well-dressed young man has been living extravagantly, making complaints and charging his bill to the Crown. On investigation they believe they have found the secret inspector and rush to alert the Mayor.
As it happens, though he is no inspector there is indeed something suspect about the well-dressed young man, Khlestakov: he is an absolute fruitcake. Played perfectly by Jack Oulton (C), he is a foppish hypochondriac with the weakest of grips on reality. Utterly untroubled by his hopeless debts, he floats about the town talking self-regarding nonsense to himself; Oulton cleverly gives the lines a looping sing-song delivery, much like the Swedish Chef from the Muppets. Despite displaying a complete lack of guile or charisma, Khlestakov finds everything and everyone falling into his lap – money, food, compliments and women. Yet he scarcely bats an eyelid at his remarkable good fortune; instead he just thinks that the natural order has been restored. And so he goes on his bumbling merry way, effortlessly wheedling cash from every crank and corrupt official, and with a smug deluded belief that he has peculiarly enchanting eyes.
The only character with a shred of intelligence is Khlestakov’s likeable servant Osip (Aidan Grant (G)) who, realising that his own future is bound up with his shambling master, looks out for him – he can scarcely believe how easily the fools of the town are parted from their money- and eventually secures their escape from the golden cage.
After Khlestakov’s departure the townsfolk indulge in an orgy of self-congratulation at the success of their bribery, but this only leads to a row between Anna and the Mayor as their fantasies collide about their future lives in St. Petersberg. The realisation that they have all been duped by a complete idiot only comes when the Postmaster, played with endearing innocence by Sebastian Crabb (Fa), arrives with two stolen letters and reads them out. The first is from Khlestakov to a friend in which he lampoons everyone in the town, and the second is an official document telling them that the inspector is due to arrive… This triggers a collective intake of breath – which is only broken by when Maria enquires as to whether he has a moustache.
A terrific ensemble cast bring authentic life to this Russian knockabout farce, creating the oikish ambience of the hapless provincial town, an ambience assisted further by a cracking soundtrack of jaunty Russian tunes.
Lucas Carre (C) strides about with comic self-importance; Freddie Gathercole (G) moves through a revolving door backstage and reappears in four different guises: all equally ridiculous; Maada Baihinga (H) fools us for a moment that the schoolmaster may have some stature, but he’s soon seen to be as hopeless as everyone else. Only Lyapa Tyapkin, played by the ever accomplished Lulu Candlish (Rv), and the Police Superintendent, played by the stylishly guarded Solomon Ekoku (Fa), seem to keep their heads above the physical fray, but even they are complicit in the corruption.
All the action occurs on a grand sweeping stage suggestive of the emptiness and fading grandeur of Imperial Russia, and which allows space for the relentless physical comedy that the cast performs with aplomb. This is a winter show with a warm heart. Yes it exposes human weakness and folly on a grand scale but is never sententious or preachy – instead there is an acceptance that we are all deeply flawed and pretty hopeless. Indeed, in the final scene the rumbled Mayor suddenly turns to the audience and asks ‘What are you laughing about? You are laughing at yourselves!‘ Humbling food for thought as the school awaits an ISI inspection next term!