Paula Chitty’s new adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector is an entertaining comedy of errors, which relocates the action from 19th century Russia to northern England in 1979. With public workers on strike in response to cuts and corruption within the council, the town of Worsborough Dale has fallen into unsanitary disrepair – so it’s with some horror that the local officials learn there’s a government inspector on the way.
When they hear there’s a well-dressed young man staying at the local B&B, they jump to the obvious conclusion, and deal with the problem the only way they know how: by throwing money at it. There’s just one problem – said well-dressed young man isn’t the inspector at all, but Norman, a minor civil servant who’s gambled away all his funds, and is consequently only too happy to accept every penny of the council’s generosity.
Nobody comes out of this story very well: as loathsome as Norman (Jack Blue) and his travelling companion Osip (John Stivey) are, we can’t help but enjoy seeing them take advantage of the equally vile council officials, who’ve been cheerfully lying, cheating and lining their own pockets at the expense of the local residents. Property dealers Black and Jack (Elizabeth George and Richard Houghton-Evans) are dreadful gossips, Tommy the postman (Robert Mclachlan) routinely opens everyone’s mail, the Deputy Leader (Richard Willmott) is a creep who’s already having at least one affair, and the Chairman (Bernard O’Sullivan) is a tyrant who’s only interested in his own career advancement. The one character for whom we have any sympathy is Anna (Fiona Vivian), the Chairman’s daughter, who ends up an innocent pawn in the schemes of her father and Norman.
The real victims, however, are the people of Worsborough Dale, who’ve seen their wages cut, jobs lost and public services slashed; the town’s overrun with rats and the lights keep going out, so it’s hardly surprising that they’ve taken to the streets in protest. Though the play’s set in the 70s, it’s not hard to draw parallels with the current political situation, and the lack of public faith in those elected to lead our country.
The production is at times a little unpolished, but the enthusiasm of the cast can’t be faulted as they throw themselves gleefully into their various unsavoury roles. There’s also some excellent physical humour, particularly in Act 2 when events really begin to spiral out of control. Jack Blue and John Stivey make an enjoyably unscrupulous comedy double act as Norman and his long-suffering companion Osip, and Bernard O’Sullivan also stands out as the increasingly frustrated Chairman; when he finally explodes, it’s quite a sight to behold.
At a time when it feels harder than ever to trust those in power, it feels both appropriate and depressing to see Gogol’s play revived, almost 200 years after it was written. Perhaps one day we’ll no longer need cautionary tales like these – but based on humanity’s track record to date, it seems sadly unlikely.
The Government Inspector ran at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre from 21st-25th August.