A long time ago I saw a production of Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector. It was very good indeed, but just a bit worthy and ever so slightly dull. It seemed to me like a play which needed a kick up the backside, as we would say here in Yorkshire, and finally it has been given exactly that by our very own Northern Broadsides. Their new production is Northern Broadsides at their very broadest, high farce with a biting edge, with the action transferred to a northern town, the arse end of nowhere. “Nobody comes here and nobody leaves.” The inhabitants are not even sure whether they are in Lancashire or Yorkshire, and for those reading this who are not locals that last point is about as good a definition of being clueless as you can get up here.
The small town is rife with corruption, awash with backhanders and people looking out for the main chance. For some reason the audience found this situation all too recognisable- just as Gogol’s original audiences around 170 years ago would have done- and I am pretty sure it will still be familiar to those watching in 170 years time. The play is quite merciless as it exposes the cruelty of those who trample on the less powerful and take from the needy, and there really is not a single person to sympathise with, not one. When a visiting con man arrives in town, they mistake him for a government inspector who is due in town and he plays them at their own game, rooking them out of as much money, food and overblown attention as he can while we watch them squirm. Every single one of them deserves what may well be coming to them when Gogol finally delivers the kick in the teeth that we have been waiting for, via Deborah McAndrew’s sharp and witty new version.
The genius of this production is that it has the confidence to go way over the top, and because this is backed up by the kind of absurd truthfulness that farce has to have the bite of the satire is not lost. However outlandish the playing may be it is always totally accurate, totally controlled, so that when we are finally shown the cost of the high jinks that we have been laughing at the mood can turn and Gogol’s point is made as sharply as you could wish. This is thanks to some fine work from the cast, but also thanks to some very fine direction from Conrad Nelson. One small but important example of this is the way that when the real government inspector finally arrives he is played by the one actor who has been a still low key presence throughout the play as Councillor Belcher’s chauffeur. It is very much an ensemble piece, fast and furious, with the whole company playing as one, but I’m sure that nobody who has seen it will be surprised when I say that I have to mention Jon Trenchard, who gives an absolute blinder of a performance as Snapper, the con man. He hits the stage at full pelt and never lets up, setting the tone and carrying everybody else along with him. You can only get away with pushing the boat out that far if you are supremely confident that it works and you have the skill to carry it off. It’s a high risk performance, outlandish but at the same time beautifully controlled, and it is great fun to watch and marvel at it.
The set is a pile of muddled, old fashioned bureaucratic files and it has adapted very well to the round at the Stephen Joseph. There is some great brass band playing, which is more than just an occasional accompaniment to a scene change- there are times when the instruments speak and Snapper in particular has a lovely sequence of dialogue with them.
This is vintage Northern Broadsides, it really is. Belly laughs with a sharp edge of truth.