15 June 2011

The Government Inspector - Young Vic, Monday 6th June 2011

A corrupt Mayor and his officials are alarmed to hear rumours of the impending arrival of a government inspector. Evidently this fellow will be travelling "incognito". Thrown into a panic, the Mayor and his officials desperately struggle to stifle public dissatisfaction whilst deflecting the blame for their many and various misdemeanours onto each other. But who is the government inspector and where is he hiding? He could of course be anyone. It is brought to their notice that an apparently penniless rake and his servant happen to be staying at the local inn. Despite the fact that they are unable to pay their bill, this unlikely couple suddenly find themselves being treated like royalty by the sycophantic mayor and his cronies. "The Government Inspector" eventually rides away a good deal richer, having sampled for free the best hospitality the small town could muster, including not just the finest food and drink, but also the feverishly competitive adoration of both the Mayor’s forceful wife, and his seemingly impressionable daughter. The truth of their dreadful mistake is finally revealed to the town, and just as the humiliated Mayor strives to apportion blame in order to restore some semblance of credibility, the arrival of the real inspector is announced...

Mayor- Julian Barratt
Dr Gibner/waiter - Steven Beard
Maria. - Louise Brealey
Dobchinsky - Jack Brough
Bobchinsky - Fergus Craig
Osip - Callum Dixon
Postmaster/Sergeants widow - Amanda Lawrence
Mayor’s wife - Doon Mackichan
Judge - Bruce Mackinnon
Head of hospitals - Eric Maclennan
Schools superintendent - Simon Muller
Mishcka - Graham O'mara
Khlestakov - Kyle Soller
Police superintendent - David Webber
Here we go again. Another bloody “comedian” from the TV who thinks he can act. At least James Cordon has been in a couple of plays. But this fool's theatre experience? Nothing, rien, nada, zilch. Not even a touring production of The Hollow. Listen, chutney. Acting isn’t just about learning the lines, getting up on stage and regurgitating them while being vaguely zany, you know.

[Deep breath]

Right, I needed to get that off my chest. The mystery bug that has set up home inside me continued to make me feel rotten and scratchy, so I really wasn’t in a terribly receptive mood for this, particularly as I’d had a lousy meal served by completely charmless staff in the thai restaurant next door. Also, I usually only find the Evening Standard good for a quick flick through before it becomes lining material for the food recycling bin, but there were several really interesting pieces in this evening’s copy, and for tuppence I’d have gone home for a cup of tea, a plate of cheese on toast and a good read of it, before wandering towards bed. My heart sank even lower when Him Indoors warned me about the Director’s particular style – “He’s obsessed with the 1950s and wallpaper, so expect both”. Its true; both Annie Get Your Gun and The Good Soul of Szechuan had been 50s, and there had indeed been plenty of wallpaper. So lets be frank; I wasn’t expecting to be greatly entertained and I was anticipating doing some good work on my “Doesn’t Russell’s Theatre Reviews” like anything?” reputation. I’d found the plot summary vaguely intriguing though, having looked it up on the internet that afternoon (again, no synopsis in the bloody programme!), finding it bearing more than a passing resemblance to the plot of several classic plays and, indeed, a particular episode of Fawlty Towers. (Did you know there are supposed to be only seven basic plots in fiction? 1) The Quest, 2) Virtue Unrecognised, 3) The Fatal Character Flaw, 4) The Star-Crossed Lovers, 5) The Mistaken Identity and so on and so forth, which is RTRspeak for “I can’t remember the other two”). I chatted about this with Him Indoors while finishing my after-dinner cigarette – which actually tasted better, cost considerably less than and was more filling than my dumplings-in-dishwater – and, to my delight, he admitted that he had never seen the play before and didn’t know anything about it. Hurrah, thought I, no pompous pronouncements about how he had seen dear Larry Olivier or dear Cicely Courtnidge or dear (insert name here) perform in it and they were much better, dharling. But then I struck true gold – “Its so exciting coming into the consciousness of an undiscovered classic”. I laughed so much I had trouble scribbling it down on my napkin to use later.

Once again, the layout of the Young Vic has been changed so the audience enters across the stage and “out through the front door of the house” into the auditorium (nitpicking point here: the front cloth shows a two-storey house but according to the text of the play it should have three storeys. I would like to point out in my own defence that this particular nit was picked by Him Indoors and not me for a change. I responded by arguing that there’s nothing to prove that the frontcloth shows the Mayors House and nothing to say that the third storey doesn’t consist of attic space under the roof. If its nits you want picked, I can pick with the best). There’s a bit of scene-setting interaction while you are wandering around on the stage, which is always a nice idea, but there should have been a bit more of it.

Anyway, I found myself warming to the play after about 10 minutes – although there is indeed quite a lot of 50s wallpaper. I warmed to it considerably more after Kyle Soller’s first entrance because he took total control of the entire play and basically just walked away with it, turning in an extremely commanding and assured performance despite his relative youth. I did, however, wish that the director hadn’t made his costume and makeup so obviously based on Johnny Depp in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or indeed Johnny Depp in Alice in Wonderland. It meant that I struggled for quite some time to separate the character of Khlestakov from Willy Wonka and the Mad Hatter, both of which characters seemed somehow to be feeding directly into Soller's portrayal. Still, even though I was feeling lousy, he entertained me and made me laugh, which I suppose is what good theatre is all about. It took me longer to warm toDoon Mackichan in the role of the Mayor’s wife but she got there in the end – she has a fine talent for comedy which is what the role demands, although takes a while to get into her stride, I thought. Its when her character starts trying to impress Khlestakov (who she thinks is the eponymous Government Inspector) by dropping odd French phrases into the conversation that she starts to sparkle in the role.

There is some odd casting elsewhere. Many of those playing the townspeople were obviously cast for what they look like rather than how competent they are as actors. Amanda Lawrence although a woman, is apparently well-known for her portrayal of Charles Hawtrey – the Casting Director obviously thought “This role would probably be played by Charles Hawtrey if we were making Carry On Government Inspector so get Amanda on the phone and see if she’s free”. Conversely Jack Brough and Fergus Craig, playing identically dressed (apart from the shoes, I noticed) identical twins, look nothing like each other.

Direction seemed a little hit and miss to my uneducated eye. There seemed to be quite a lot of unfocussed shambling around, particularly by Barratt; he seemed unable to keep still at any point, flailed his hands constantly and has such poor stage presence that he seemed to be constantly apologising for his performance. I longed to grab him by the shoulders and shout “Stand UP, man! And stand STILL!” For all that The Mighty Boosh may have an Alternative Comedy Following, acting isn’t just about learning the lines and trying not to fall over the furniture.

One thing I really don’t like on stage is surrealism. There are a few whimsical touches here and there in this production, in a kind of Vision On way (crikey, that’s dating me), that are funny and quite clever, particularly the use of the word “ingognito” projected onto the scenery and moved around; your eyes naturally follow it and so you don’t notice scene changes happening on the opposite side of the stage, and that I could cope with. I could just about cope with the cash-offering scene with hands coming up out of the floor, bookcases and vases holding banknotes. But there is one scene of such heavy surrealism late in the play that it knocks the action completely off-kilter and brings the play almost to a complete halt, from which it struggles to regain momentum before the end. Ditch it and the second half would sit more easily.

One thing that seemed slightly pretentious about an otherwise unexpectedly entertaining evening was the lack of the definite article in this production’s title. Gogol wrote a play and called it The Government Inspector. To call this particular version merely Government Inspector is odd, to say the least. I’m not a betting man but I will put money on the pro reviewers picking up on this. I’ll also put money on extremely mixed reviews. I suspect some will love it, others hate it. I liked it, which is neither one nor t’other, but a more positive outcome than I expected.

02 June 2011

Save Wilton's Music Hall

Dear RTR readers

Wilton's Music Hall, the only surviving example of a 19th century music hall in the entire country, is under threat.  For many years, the Trustees have been struggling to keep this unique building from collapse.  A recent application for Heritage Lottery funding has recently been rejected and, unless the public can raise £2m, Wilton's will disappear for ever. 

What would you prefer - a wonderful piece of theatrical, social and architectural history, or yet another faceless apartment block, office building or car park? 

I'm asking you to support Wilton's while you can.  Go along and see a performance, buy a drink in the bar, take a guided tour or make a donation, however small, via the "JustGiving" widget to the right of this message, or visit http://www.wiltons.org.uk/

Keep our theatrical heritage alive!