A Government Inspector: thank you, City Hall, for being a good sport

Northern Broadsides might be best known for their Shakespeare, but A Government Inspector shows that the partnership of Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson is another priceless string to their bow.

Scene from A Government Inspector

Public sector employers, for all their virtues, have never been renowned for a sense of humour. The UK civil service, for instance, goes to great lengths to say that Yes Minister is in no way an accurate portrayal of a 21st-century government department. (Footnote: I worked in one, and I can assure you the truthful response is: “Oh yes it is.”) But, in fairness, that’s nothing compared to Nickolai Gogol’s experience with The Government Inspector. When he wrote his satire of petty bureaucracy and corruption in 19th-century Russia, it was only due to the Tsar’s intervention he was able to stage it at all. But the royal endorsement didn’t do that much good, because the outrage from His Majesty’s loyal servants drove him to exile within a year.

Luckily for Gogol, he chose a subject with remarkable staying power. The story centres on a provincial Russian town that is corrupt through and through. The tinpot tyrant Mayor taking bribes from everyone, and the poor old shopkeepers at the bottom of the pile forced to pay these bribes in order to stay in business. All is well until word reaches the Mayor of a high-ranking government official coming to investigate the allegations of corruption. Don’t panic – just a temporary alteration to the pecking order. Just pass this man a few non-repayable loans and he’ll be on his way. But we never find out if this plan would have worked, because they mistake a low-grade civil servant staying at the inn for for the inspector – and worse, he’s a complete sponger only too happy to soak up the flattery and backhanders.

Needless to say, this play proves very popular for adaptations, because if you remove the references to Russia and the Tsar and it could be set anywhere. The most well-known sort-of adaptation is the Fawlty Towers episode The Hotel Inspectors. But whilst Basil Fawlty eventually wises up and the sponging hotel guest eventually gets his comeuppance, the Mayor in Gogol’s play remains blissfully oblivious. Even when the Mayor’s wife and daughter both start fawning over the fake inspector, the Mayor is happy to let him help himself as long as that buys him power or influence. And it get worse. Anyway, the Fawlty Towers episode is just one of many spin-offs, and the latest one is Northern Broadsides’ own adaptation, now titled A Government Inspector.

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Middle-class farce stops here

Directing a play written by a successful living writer-director is no easy task – but Andrew Hall’s take on Ayckbourn’s Haunting Julia is a welcome break from the middle-class farcce mentality that plagues Ayckbourn’s work.

Who saw the latest tour of Relatively Speaking? You know, the one with Felicity Kendal and Kara Tointon, went to Newcastle Theatre Royal. I boycotted it. To be fair, other people who’ve seen this said it was good, but I had a number of issues, the clincher being the way it described itself as “Charmingly English”. “English”, yes, because Ayckbourn’s plays are heavily centred on the unique ability of the English to hold it all in – but “charming”? No Ayckbourn plays are written to be charming. Plenty of plays with tragic undertones masquerading as comedies, but that’s not the same thing. I’ve previously written about Absurd Person Singular and it being nothing like the gentle middle-class farce that Ayckbourn plays are labelled with, especially the early ones, and I stand by those comments. However, there are some later plays of Ayckbourn that most definitely can’t be presented as farces, and one of them is Haunting Julia.

Haunting Julia is actually one of my favourite plays. On the surface, it is a ghost story. Julia Lukin was a brilliant world-famous musician and composer who inexplicably committed suicide aged 19. Twelve years on, her father Joe has set up the Julia Lukin music centre, part music facility, part memorial, and part shrine to his daughter. The key exhibit is Julia’s tiny student room recreated in detail – a room which Joe suspects Julia never fully left. And as it happens, on the day he brings along Andy, an old sort-of boyfriend, and Ken Chase, a psychic, he turns out to be right.

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Every artist’s worst nightmare

Over twenty years after the première, Duet For One is still a deeply moving portrayal of the kind of ordeal faced by Jacqueline du Pré.

Most serious artists would agree that the one thing you need to make it – whether you’re an aspiring writer, painter, composer or whatever – is dedication. Anyone who considers their art less important than silly trivial things like, oh, a social life, or a career, or a stable relationship, is clearly not going to make it. The same can be said of sportspeople. Small wonder, then, that after high-profile sportpeople retire, many of them face isolation, depression, and sometimes even suicide. Artists are a bit more lucky, and can generally keep going far beyond their thirties. But not always. When the thing you dedicated you life to is cut short by illness or injury, how do your recover from that? That was was the tragic fate of Jacqueline du Pré, an extraordinarily gifted famous cellist who lost it all to multiple sclerosis.

Duet for One is not the only story based on du Pré’s decline, nor the most famous – that title goes to the controversial Hilary and Jackie, criticised by many as sensationalist and inaccurate. Tom Kempinski on the other hand, distances his play from reality; Jacqueline du Pré becomes Stephanie Anderson, a gifted violinist, no sister in the family, and no brother-in-law to make dubious claims over an affair. Instead, we have a back-story of Stephanie’s childhood battle with a father determined she won’t pursue music as a career, proof of how much her music means to her. But the main thing remains unchanged, which is the thing that she gave everything for she can no longer do.

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