Review: Political pulse not beating quite hard enough

28 Nov 2012 @ 4.26 pm
| Entertainment
Russian theatre, the Pennine way. Northern Broadsides' A Government Inspector. Photograph by Nobby Clark
Review: A Government Inspector
Venue: York Theatre Royal, November 27, 2012
A Northern Broadsides and Harrogate Theatre Touring Production

On taking their seats, the audience is presented with a striking set (designed by Dawn Allsopp). A fabulous pile of drawers, in late Victorian-style polished wood, is stuffed with documents and money, promising hidden secrets and layers of deception.

A community in a northern town is at the mercy of its corrupt council leader and his associates. Brown envelopes full of cash and dodgy handshakes ensure Tony Belcher (Howard Chadwick) has complete power over his fiefdom. An inspector is due in town, travelling incognito, and a case of mistaken identity reveals that corruption reaches every sector of society, as the townsfolk fall over one another to buy the visitor’s favour.

This classic of Russian theatre by Nikolai Gogol has been re-envisioned by Northern Broadsides in their trademark broad northern fashion.

Kraig Thornber as Sidebottom and Andy Cryer as Longbottom. Photograph by Nobby Clark

By the end of the night, this reviewer felt that Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson have created an adaptation that is both faithful to the original while also challenging us to look at our own times. But there is something odd about this world that crosses three centuries from Gogol’s own time to ours. In one line a character complains that the town “doesn’t know what century it’s in”. Which is true of the whole piece.

Costumes travel from across the 20th century to the present day. Music hall and hints of German Expressionism mingle with a touch of Graham Norton, and while it is very funny, the timing of the jokes wasn’t quite on the money (excuse the pun) to have us rolling in the aisles.

Scattering contemporary political and cultural references reminds us that the point of reviving a classic text is to hold up a light to the present day, and it certainly does that, but somewhere in the core of this production the political pulse is not beating quite hard enough. When characters are based so heavily on stereotypes to get laughs, it becomes harder to worry about them as a real threat to civic society.

On the day that Greater Manchester Police issued a press release on the failure to follow up accusations of child abuse against Cyril Smith, life has gone way beyond art – and real-life, fat northern politicians now seem much more threatening than Tony Belcher and his crew.

In an ensemble piece it is hard to pick out individual performances, but the award goes to the brass-band playing, which is outstandingly imaginative.