GOVERNMENT Inspector is to be confused with The Government Inspector. As was A Government Inspector, Deborah McAndrew’s adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s Russian malarkey for Northern Broadsides in 2012.
David Harrower’s take on Gogol’s 1836 political satire dates from a year earlier and was the choice of Alan Park, dynamic actor and even more dynamic Theatre@41 chair, when picked to direct Settlement Players’ autumn production in his first time back in the director’s seat in 15 years.
McAndrew shifted the council shenanigans from small-town 19th century Russia to the small-town Pennines. Harrower keeps the Russian locale but moves Gogol’s cautionary tale of bribes, backhanders, brown envelopes and bent practices to the crumbling Soviet days of the 1980s, although its digs at corporate cronyism and rotten eggs could be directed at any complacent, corrupt, smug local authority, any time, any place, anywhere.
Park’s design team of Richard Hampton and Stephen Palmer favour the greys and dour blocks of Russian Brutalism in a minimalist set of one chair and desk.
Faded Soviet Union graffiti is splattered on the walls of the traverse stage, drapes and beading put the red into Russia, while costume duo Judith Ireland and Grace Trapps have fun with Eighties’ shell-suits and track suits, braces, bright shirts, ghastly ties and clashing bold-checked jackets. All topped off by shoulder pads for the high fashions of the Mayor’s wife, Anna, (Alison Taylor) and daughter Maria (Pearl Mollison, returning to the boards after several years backstage stage-managing productions).
Park’s show may be of Shakesperean length – even the cast was conceding the first half was too long on the first night, as the clock ticked towards three hours – but it nevertheless moves at a fair old lick, led by Mike Hickman’s frenetic Mayor.
The running time could have been shortened by not inserting a town band to perform deadpan dollops of Eighties’ hits, but that would have taken away from one of the primary joys of Park’s perky production, led by musical director Jim Paterson’s Buster Keaton-faced interjections and sometimes silent bewilderment.
Patterson has his moment in the sunshine too when called on to read the lines of a serf, book in hand, humorously growing into the role the more confident he becomes, in the tradition of a chorus line conversion to a principal.
His keep-it-simple keyboards and quickfire hop on to guitar are joined by Adam Sowter’s deliberately cheesy Eighties’ flourishes on keys, Matt Pattison’s guitar and Florence Poskitt’s accordion. Pattison and Poskitt’s interval rendition of Islands In The Stream is a particular delight, stripped of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s big-haired country romanticism.
Patterson, Pattison and Poskitt are part of a cast that puts the emphasis on the ensemble, on comedy teamwork, but with room for individual flair and double-act tomfoolery to shine too.
Hickman is on a hot streak after his mysterious, cunning Captain Philip Lombard’s in Pick Me Up Theatre’s And Then There Were None last month, and here his corrupt character goes from over-confident to nervous wreck, as unloved as Malvolio.
November’s Movember campaign to cultivate moustaches to raise awareness of men’s health issues may still be around the corner, but Park’s coterie of men have done so already, from Hickman and Patterson to Mark Simmonds’s Head of Hospitals, Sowter’s biscuit-dipping, tea-drinking Police Superintendent and Paul Osborne’s School Superintendent, who receives a standing ovation after a piece of flustered comic invention involving choking on a cigar in the form of a kazoo.
Matt Pattison’s full-of-wonder/snooping Postmaster and Paul French’s lackey Osip were already fully bearded as their programme mugshots reveal.
In Shakespeare master-and-servant tradition, French’s Osip is doing the bidding for Andrew Roberts’s Khlestakov, the “government inspector” of Gogol’s play, or so all the town assumes when sent into a panic by news of his imminent arrival.
Roberts, with his moustache from a matinee-idol cigarette card and Terry-Thomas air, is a dapper chancer, with comic timing and humorous physicality that revels in his ascension to the lead role.
Spot-on casting all round by Park, from Taylor’s vainglorious Anna and Mollison’s preening Maria, to Maggie Smales’s corruptible Judge, Poskitt’s quick switches from gormless Shopkeeper to Mishka and Alexandra Mather’s trio of wide-eyed cameos.
Forever arguing with each other’s account of what’s happening, landowners Dobchinsky and Bobchinsky receive the clowning treatment from Irish-accented University of York theatre MA student Katie Leckey in her Settlement debut and Sonia Di Lorenzo in her Settlement return after a seven-year hiatus. These shell-suit shockers are one of many reasons to inspect Government Inspector, sent from Russia with gloves off.
Performances are at 7.30pm tonight (27/10/2023); 2.30pm and 7.30pm tomorrow. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.