Nikolai Gogol, in a new version by David Harrower
Directed by Richard Jones
Julian Barratt is widely known for being one half of the comedic duo behind award-winning comedy The Mighty Boosh. It is no surprise then that The Young Vic’s new production of Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector, in a new version by David Harrower, which casts Barratt as a hapless mayor, has drummed up not only a considerable buzz but also very high expectations upon its transfer to London from Warwick. Recently our reviews have followed the same basic pattern in our introductions: that we have high expectations of a show, which are subsequently lived up to. As much as we’d like to continue this trend, it has to be said that this time we were a little disappointed.
Gogol’s script is a comedy about a far flung Russian town which receives news that it is to be visited by a government inspector from the Tsar in Saint Petersburg. While they frantically try to clean up their act to impress said inspector, the town’s air-headed and incompetent bureaucrats mistake a broke young nobleman as the Tsar’s visitor. Hilarity ensues, or at least is supposed to. Richard Jones’ production embarks on an absurdist revival of this story and it’s hard to say where it went wrong. On paper, this show should be a five star production: Olivier award-winner Richard Jones as director, Miriam Buether (who won awards for Earthquakes in London) as set designer, and lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin (who lit Jerusalem). The all-star creative team is one which shouldn’t fail to create outstanding theatre. Furthermore, the cast is full of talent: Julian Barratt is obviously the biggest name, but plenty of other cast members would be worth watching in their own right. However, it just never comes together. Fundamentally it felt like an amateur production which needed some more rehearsal time.
Perhaps the problem is that the absurdist style just doesn’t work for Gogol’s satirical script. Gogol was not an absurdist writer, and indeed he is considered the father of Russian realism. Unlike ‘normal’ absurdist plays, such as the works of Ionesco or Pinter where the absurdity is built directly into the language, in this production the absurdism exists only in the staging, and it feels out of place. Alternatively the problem could lie in the acting, which seemed almost universally dry and flat. Additionally, the lighting looked amateurish, and the set looked scrappy and unprofessional. It seemed remarkable that almost every element of the show fell short in some respect. This could have course have been the point: one could argue that maybe it was all intended this way, to mimic the nature of the incompetent bureaucrats which the script is aimed to tease. However, even if this was the case, the line between doing something badly for comedic or dramatic effect and just doing it plain badly is a fine one, and this production simply falls on the wrong side of that line.
There were redeeming features. Although Barratt’s individual performance was predominantly flat, he had flashes of brilliance. His eye movements, twitches and reactions were very funny at times, but the delivery of his lines simply did not carry the power needed to enchant an auditorium. In fact, the production is kept afloat by Kyle Soller, who plays the young washout from Saint Petersburg who is more than happy to accept the gifts and bribes of the townspeople. His comic timing is excellent and it is his superb individual performance which drives the show. Furthermore, the production’s energy picked up a lot in the second half, with some rare well-staged and suitably absurd moments. Indeed, the second half showed signs of real promise, which is why we bumped up its rating to three stars as a whole. Sadly however, these redeeming features are insufficient to lift the production as a whole.
Unfortunately, the word limit for this review does not allow me to go into the details of why this production falls short of what we expected, where it may have gone wrong, and how it could be saved. Suffice to say it is a shame that this highly anticipated production had an air of sloppiness to it which left us confused and underwhelmed. In fairness, we saw the show on one of its first nights in The Young Vic, so small mistakes can be forgiven. However, one has to remember that this show has already had a run in Warwick, and so, if nothing else, it should have left us with the feeling that this was a production with potential. Sadly, it did not.
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The Government Inspector runs at The Young Vic until 9th July 2011.
Box Office: 020 7922 2922 or book online at http://www.youngvic.org/whats-on/government-inspector