It took a while but, thanks to the dedicated contributions of our resident review team, here, finally, is the feedback on our recent ‘The Government Inspector’. Photos will follow shortly.
I have to admit, it was another case of not quite knowing what to expect as I turned up to St Francis Church Hall for the Matchbox’s latest production, Gogol’s ‘The Government Inspector’. A mid-19th century play from Tsarist Russia does not immediately leap out as prospect for a hugely entertaining evening and I won’t hide the fact that I was secretly wishing to myself that I was instead lined up to watch something more along the lines of Fawlty Towers and it’s classic ‘Hotel Inspectors’ than what the evening boded at its outset. It turns out that, come the end of the night, I wasn’t too far off from fulfilling just this wish.
A play like this relies so much on its translation and David Harrower’s envisioning of Gogol’s words, whilst keeping to the spirit of them, was spot on. Written with a punchy, pacey and pantomimic verve, it captured an energetic, contemporary Britishness that accentuated the biting bitchiness and bawdiness at the heart of the work. Here is a world where everyone is corrupt and no one is a good guy, but by crikey, in this reworking, we certainly revel in the vices of every character on the stage.
To very briefly sum up the plot, the nameless town where the play is set is about to be visited by a government inspector and the inhabitants have to clean up their act. What follows is a mixture of farce, word play, innuendo, slapstick, banter, coarseness, mistaken identity and hilarity, delivered in the main, in pitch perfect fashion by a varied and sizeable cast. It was good to see a production that brought so many people back onto the Matchbox stage, from the very young and fresh faced to the older and familiar, the mix proving part of the evening’s considerable success and indicating that there is clearly a new vein of talent to plumb in the group’s future.
Heading up this twenty strong cast and making a return to the St Francis stage after a two year break was John Mackintosh, a stalwart of local theatre who has been much missed. His portrayal of the Mayor was on just the right level of wicked caricature. No Stanislavskian soul searching here, but a seemingly effortless portrayal of dazzling corruption and hypocrisy with a sidelong glance here, a venomous inflection there and a torn mayoral hat somewhere in between. Energetic and charismatic, his performance was a considerable motivating force of the show and was wonderful to see him back again inhabiting so nasty a role with such eager relish.
As his ministers, Jerry Moore, Chris Rutter and Gill Challenger provided able support and confident characterisation. Each a seasoned actor they knew well how to bring out the nuances in each of these stereotypes , whether sinister Minster of Health, over pampered and deviant Judge or extraordinarily nervous Education minister, and each showed themselves master of the meaningful glance, the comic aside or marvellous adlib. Special mention must however go to Gill Challenger’s educationalist and her wonderful scene with the ‘Inspector’, a master-class of comic timing, expression and interaction and deserved of the applause received. One of the best smoking scenes I have ever witnessed and, in my humble opinion, one of Gill’s truly standout performances; this girl goes from strength to strength.
In the role of Anna, the Mayor’s wife, K Isom once again demonstrated her own increasing comedic talents. Not typically cast as the predatory borderline nymphomaniac, she nonetheless filled the roll perfectly. Whether it was her magnificent entrance draped against the door frame in true Hollywood style or leaning back breathlessly in a heated clinch she camped and vamped it up in grand style and proved a joy to watch. In the role of her daughter, and arguably rival, newcomer Lucy Montague brought a wonderful verve and squealing, girlish naivety to the character that was a wonderful foil to the pretentions of K’s all too provincial mother. The two worked well together, particularly in their moments of oneupwomanship and their unleashing of a little bit of inner cattiness brought a frisson to proceedings.
And so, to ‘The Inspector’ himself. This reviewer has had the pleasure of seeing a number of James Mercer’s performances and he has always shown himself a confident, charismatic and engaging lead but here he truly excelled himself. The spoilt, profligate gambler and minor government official Khlestakov is a wretched individual and the source of the mistaken identity but James’s portrayal embraced the idea that, awful as this fellow is, he must be watchable and we must want to share time with him. His oleaginous, slightly lecherous, wonderfully perverse and forever whining interpretation was magical. I have said that, although always accomplished, this actor sometimes ends up playing a variant of the same theme so it was wonderful to see him turn in such a great piece of character work.
As his sidekick Osip, another newcomer Will Rowlands shone. He delivered an opening monologue with gusto and instantly drew the audience in to the point where they stuck with him through the show. His downtrodden but sarcastic servant provided another fine double act in his relationship with Khlestakov, and I have no doubt that he will be an actor that will be seen on this stage again.
In fact this was a play with double acts in abundance, a Postmaster and his wife (something of a departure from the original I believe, but this was an adaptation), played by Adam Wonnacott and Liz Bown; two minxy waitresses played with delicious relish and sneering charm by Lily Pearce and Natalie Reeve; a pair of competitive older wives (Joan Evans and a welcome return from Annie Norris) and the Tweedledum and Tweedledee combo of Adam Benwell and Josh Potter as Dobchinsky and Bobchinsky. Or was that Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky? These two newbies, in particular, brought youthful energy, well timed byplay and some great physical comedy to the proceedings; and it’s good to see the fat suit has not been mothballed as a source of cheap comedy for a night out at the theatre.
There was no question that this was an ensemble piece with many strong performances throughout; to detail all of them would be impossible in the space provided but it would be remiss not to refer to the ever reliant Clive Moss for his wicked facial flair as the silent German doctor, Beth Reeve for her understated but confident portrayal of put upon maid and Dot Pullan in a rather uncharacteristic role as a squawking servant who seemed to speak nothing but gibberish yet was understood by everyone. Special mention, also, must go to Charles Langdon, as the Superintendent; a joy to watch, for though lines were few he was an actor continually in role and the little tics and traits he demonstrated in the background did not go unnoticed. He truly inhabited the character and proved a standout to more than one member of the audience I know. Adam Wonacott’s ‘Boycee’ flavoured Postmaster also drew more than a smirk or two, though I did expect to hear him call for ‘Marlene’ at more than one point throughout the action!
As often the case at The Matchbox, the play was staged in the round though the proscenium arch was put to very good use as both a grimy bedroom in the local tavern and then, in miraculous contrast, the wonderfully decorated Yellow Room in the mayoral abode. Once again the Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen of the Matchbox, Mr Mike Downing, excelled himself with a fabulous transformation from one of the grungiest sets I have seen him produce to one of the most aesthetically pleasing and, well, beautiful. It was a treat for the eyes when some way into the second act the curtains were drawn back to reveal a wholly unexpected but wonderful scene. And as always, attention to detail was second to none, whether it was cherubs above the bedstead or, I understand, a genuine church relic in the form of one of the jugs on the nightstand.
Lighting, though minimal, was suitable for highlighting the aesthetic and the few snatches of incidental music we heard had an appropriate balalaika flavour to them, all contributing to the mood of the piece. Special mention must however go to the costumes that added that wonderful baroque pantomime feel to the piece. Sourced primarily by Kerstin Beard, wardrobe mistress for a number of theatres in the area, they really added to the slightly phantasmagorical, vaguely offbeat and trippy feel of the whole experience whilst still firmly anchoring it in the nineteenth century.
Once again the Mike Savill-Annie Norris production team had got it right. Three satisfied full houses stand as testament to that. Yes, there were issues – occasionally the rhythm of the piece would flag slightly and the play was probably a tad longer than it needed to be, though to be honest every time I did start thinking about the time I was drawn back into the action and didn’t begrudge the two and three quarter hour length of the show come curtain down. I also thought it rather cheeky that the director Savill, who though he made a blink and you’ll miss it cameo as a messenger (in trainers!!), helped himself to a curtain call in a position far undeserving of the status of his role. But it can be forgiven. This was another great show that proved a lot of fun and demonstrated, once again, that church hall theatre is alive and well and flourishing at a damn good price.