The Government Inspector, Theatre Royal, Stratford East

Writer: Nikolai Gogol
Adaptor: David Harrower
Director: Roxana Silbert
Reviewer: Edie Ranvier

What’s the Russian for “omnishambles”?

The Government Inspector is Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 satire about a small town whose corrupt officials are thrown into a panic by the news that an official is coming from St Petersburg to vet their management.

Desperate to cover up their corruption and incompetence, the mayor and his deputies fasten on a well-spoken stranger whom they spot at the inn, and fête him to the skies. Unfortunately for them, they’ve got the wrong man…

The Government Inspector may be approaching its 200th birthday, but it still resonates. A week may be a long time in politics, but some things don’t change in two centuries. And this foul-mouthed 2011 adaptation by David Harrower (of Blackbird and Knives In Hens fame) both confirms and refreshes the play’s currency.

The Birmingham Repertory Theatre, in association with the Ramps On The Moon project, here put their own slant on The Government Inspector by integrating sign language, Deaf and disabled actors into their production.

Under the direction of Roxana Silbert, performer interpreters and audio describers (Becky Barry, Daryl Jackson, Amanda Wright), usually outside of the action, here take centre stage alongside the main characters, the physicality of the sign language lending an extra liveliness to the pace of the play. Jean St Clair as the judge, Lyapkin-Tyapkin, even performs her scene with the “inspector” entirely in BSL, provoking confused laughter as the onscreen subtitles break down (the latter is perhaps a gag too far; it would have been nice to know what she was saying).

The first half is strong. David Carlyle as the mayor is a hub of well-choreographed chaos, sending his officials flying around to find trousers for the police force and drug hospital patients into non-complaining stupor, then marshalling his entourage to brown-nose the supposed inspector.

Robin Morrissey is dandyish and likeable as their (not-so-) distinguished guest Khlestakov, a debt-laden fop with a low-grade job in admin who can’t believe his luck when he takes the town by storm. Meanwhile, Kiruna Stamell raises laughs with her forays into French as the mayor’s pretentious wife Anna.

There’s a lot of energy in the auditorium, the farce of the action compounded by the big gestures and expressions and numbers onstage which go along with the integrated BSL performance.

Some of that liveliness falls away in the second half – perhaps because there’s less opportunity for frenzied crowd scenes, or perhaps just because Carlyle and co are getting tired. The pace flags. The mayor’s hysteria goes from funny to samey.

There are a couple of cameos which lift the spirits a bit. Richard Clews’ camp headteacher raises a laugh, squirming with embarrassment as Khlestakov dissects his taste in women, and Rhona McKenzie’s dark comic turn as the locksmith’s wife makes you wonder why the production doesn’t make more use of her.

In general, though, the cast never seems quite to recover the propulsion they had before the interval. As the real Government Inspector steps onto the stage and the actors go into a last horrified tableau, it’s more anti-climax than big finish.

But overall, it’s an enjoyable production, and certainly achieves Ramps On The Moon’s stated aim of integrating Deaf and disabled performers and audience members fully into the theatre experience. British bureaucrats, watch and learn.

Runs until 28 May |Image: Robert Day




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