A Government Inspector

Adapted by Deborah McAndrew from the original play by Nikolai Gogol
Northern Broadsides and Harrogate Theatres
Harrogate Theatre

Andy Creswell, Andrew Price and Clara Darcy as the Police with Howard Chadwick as Cllr Tony Belcher
Jon Trenchard as Snapper and Kraig Thornber as Sidebottom
Kraig Thornber as Sidebottom and Andy Cryer as Longbottom

Northern Broadsides is a boisterous company famed for its distinctly northern take on all sorts of classic texts. So it seems almost strange that they’ve taken twenty years to strike upon the idea of an update of Gogol’s classic—especially given the aptness of the adaptation and the skill of the ensemble playing here on display.

In this version the inspector in question is Jonathan Snapper (Jon Trenchard), a minor civil servant from London whose fey ways convince the sturdy northern townsfolk that he must be the Whitehall official they’re expecting. The ruddy-faced Leader of the local Council, Tony Belcher (Howard Chadwick), leaps to more and more outlandish conclusions as Snapper warms to the role unexpectedly foist upon him, and the town’s gaggle of corrupt officials nervously queue up to pay off the supposed inspector.

Conrad Nelson has put together a strong ensemble of actor-musicians who together form a brass band which adds to the stereotypically northern setting. Unsurprisingly, given the show’s requirement for northern actor-musicians who can play brass instruments, the production reunites several of the cast of Nelson’s 2011 production Broken Time, as well as that production’s musical director, Rebekah Hughes. Nelson himself is by now a proven composer and, as in the earlier piece, there are fine moments here, with witty musical interludes and set pieces adding to the joyous performances. The ensemble works extremely smoothly together, and the multi-role casting adds humour while retaining clarity.

This modern, local setting (‘somewhere between Hull, Hell and Halifax’) fits the story like a glove, and Deborah McAndrew’s adaptation deserves particular credit. She’s had great fun with some wonderful wordplay, which extends even to the translated versions of the character names. As with the rest of the production, these show imagination as well as a clear affection for Gogol’s original.

In general, the adaptation strips the fat away from the series of potentially similar encounters with the Inspector in the second half, and the direction and performances help, too, in keeping the pace high as each of the town’s corrupt officials approach Snapper in their own distinct manner.

There are a couple of bum notes; the decision to have the town doctor—who in the original speaks a dialect incomprehensible to the others—played as a mute percussionist to the brass-playing ensemble feels more like an in-joke than one which really adds to the tale. However, Tim Frances, given a tough job as the doctor, is entirely transformed as the servant/‘PA’ to Snapper, giving a wonderful, assured performance which provides the perfect foil to Trenchard’s fop.

At times the staging in general veers beyond ‘boisterous’ into broad pantomime, and it does feel occasionally as though really detailed physical work has been sacrificed for the musical elements—though there are some lovely moments capitalising on the comic talents of the whole cast. Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, for instance—wittily translated to Bob Sidebottom and Bob Longbottom—are spot-on in Kraig Thornber and Andy Cryer’s incarnations. Clara Darcy, Andrew Price, Andy Cresswell and Anthony Hunt all create memorable characters as the members of the council as well as other enjoyable cameos.

Most problematic is the production’s treatment of the sort-of eponymous central figure. Jonathan Trenchard, as the lowly, lazy pen-pusher Jonathan Snapper, is at first introduced as so extremely camp that it feels something of a stretch for him to claw back to a position of any sort of (sexual) threat in his wooing of Belcher’s wife (the wonderful Susie Emmett) and daughter (Jill Cardo as the pitch-perfect incarnation of a disgruntled Leeds teenager). This could, of course, be seen as one of the play’s inherent absurdities, and the energetic, charismatic Trenchard certainly warms into a winning performance, but the note struck at his first entrance seems somewhat off. All credit to Trenchard, however, who attacks the role fully, taking its required switches between imperious entitlement and nervy self-doubt in his stride.

The production on the whole modernises and adapts with both vigour and sensitivity, and the cast, as mentioned, throw themselves at it with gusto. The treatment of Gogol’s abrupt, chilling final note, delivered with conviction by Chadwick, is another sign that this is a fine production that cares deeply about the message behind its exuberant comedy.

A Government Inspector tours extensively in northern England and beyond. Tour dates available at http://www.northern-broadsides.co.uk/?page_id=2242

Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith

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