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Government Inspector, Young Vic | reviews, news & interviews

Government Inspector, Young Vic

Government Inspector, Young Vic

Richard Jones's jewelled clockwork does Gogol's comic masterpiece justice

Kyle Soller's Khlestakov, left, not quite the cynosure of all eyes as the putative inspectorAll images by Keith Pattison

It's not often in classic comedy that you cry with laughter at the opening gags, and even rarer that the final scene of perfectly orchestrated ensemble acting actually crowns the work. More than two decades on from his groundbreaking Old Vic production of Ostrovsky's Too Clever By Half, director of genius Richard Jones is still finding the right mugs and pushing the boundaries of edgy satire. And this time he brings the wackiest Russian comedy of them all, Government Inspector by the great Gogol, shorn of its English definite article in - at last, slava! - a tumbling, pungent new translation, version, call it what you will but it's still authentically Gogolian, by David Harrower.

In this meticulously calibrated production shared between the Young Vic and Warwick Arts Centre, where it opened in May, all the right references are in place - to bureaucratic St Petersburg under an autocratic Tsar, Pushkin as literary god, the dogshit-covered streets of provincial Russia as well as the cardplaying and superstition we preview on our tortuous journey into the auditorium. It's a long way, thankfully, from the cringeworthy, patronising update of David Farr's The U.N. Inspector seen some years back at the National Theatre. Always idiosyncratic in rejecting slavish adherence to a single time and place, Jones has familiar collaborators in designer Miriam Buether and the astounding Mimi Jordan Sherin with her ever-shifting light palette to mix new-rich bling with small-town strip-cartoon costumes and imperial parody (the Mayor as hunting man on the walls is quickly replaced by smug Nicholas I all over the place, chairs and cushions included, when the civic inspector supposedly comes to call).

4Jones also has what may be the best soundtrack I've ever heard in the world of straight theatre from composer David Sawer, whose opera From Morning to Midnight he directed at English National Opera. And before Sawer's collage progresses to tinkling salon and party numbers, it sets up the Mayor's ratty nightmare with creepy music-box sounds, rumbling stomach and wailing theremin as a single projected word - "incognito" - slithers across the wallpaper to lead the sleeping town official to his first fright. Incognito, of course, is how the threatened inspector is supposed to call, and in a dazzling first gathering of officialdom the wan face of Julian Barratt (pictured above right with Jack Brough as Dobchinsky), giving a performance flawlessly oscillating between sycophant and bully, is surrounded by a gallery of grotesques whose tics and funny voices never outstay their welcome. There's even a wry homage in the look of Simon Müller's nervy School Superintendant to bespectacled Shostakovich, whose opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk about where provincial boredom can lead has been so memorably directed by Jones at Covent Garden.

It's only as Act II shifts from the mayoral mansion to a seedy room in the local inn that the spirits drop a notch. Here, if briefly, one longs for the only asset of the National's farrago, the brilliant Michael Sheen; for Kyle Soller, a comic vision whose crinkly red hair clashes with his electric-blue trousers, can't quite hold the spell with his first speech. Perhaps the point is that Khlestakov, a young man from the city on the brink of starvation, isn't as clever, confident or stable as he thinks he is; but while we shouldn't find him cosy, Soller's sometimes low-key characterisation alienates us rather than draws us in. No matter: the virtuoso scene in which he waxes boastful in his mistaken identity may not have the kind of charisma which won Alex Jennings his laurels in Too Clever by Half, but it's gilded with every theatrical trick in the book from the surrounding ensemble.

6And this is, at every turn, a team effort that requires more clockwork timing than the audience can possibly comprehend. Doon Mackichan as the Mayoress treads an hysterically fine line between Mtsensk and Essex, with Louis Brearley as her daughter (pictured left with Mackichan) providing the perfect foil as well as a great gag in costume changes. Gogol hands it on a plate to the village officials in the scenes where they fearfully bribe the putative inspector, the just-enough mirror-acting of Amanda Lawrence's nosey postmaster the climax with the assiduous palm-greasing of landowners Dobchinsky and Bobchinsky (Fergus Craig) as the slow coda.

Here Jones reveals an accustomed but, in context, unexpected nightmare underbelly as townsfolk with grievances against the Mayor turn bestial, and he does it again as one of the plaintive Jewish shopkeepers faces the briefly triumphant official's ire; Gogol's coprophiliac and anti-Semitic tendencies aren't spared by translator or director here. There's no comfort to take away, no comic pathos unless it be Khlestakov's parting shot that he's never felt more welcome anywhere than here, under false pretences. But then Jones is hardly a feel-good kind of director, with the possible exception of his off-kilter Annie Get Your Gun in the same venue. Anyway, Moscow and Petersburg audiences should get a chance to savour this. Nobody now has a memory long enough to recall the celebrated Meyerhold production of 1926; but I bet you 300 roubles that if that great innovator of the theatre were alive today, he'd hail Jones as his true son and heir.

I bet you 300 roubles that if Meyerhold were alive today, he'd hail Jones as his true son and heir

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