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.

Northern Broadsides is primarily noted for two things. Firstly, their Shakespeare productions are very popular. Now, for a number of reasons I don’t have much interest in Shakespeare myself, but I can’t argue with the vote of confidence from Shakespeare fans. Secondly, most Northern Broadsides productions bear the hallmark of artistic director Barrie Rutter, as actor, director, or both. But this production has neither: it is a partnership of writer Deborah McAndrew and director Conrad Nelson. They last worked together on a Yorkshire adaptation of Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Both play mix a classic story with local in-jokes, great choreography, and an incredible mix of acting and musical talent amongst the cast, but whilst the last play was widely acclaimed, A Government Inspector, if anything, is even better.

Let’s get the disappointment out of the way: on the issue of biting the hand that feeds them, they arguably chickened out. Bearing in mind the furore caused in Gogol’s original, one would expect a truly faithful local adaptation to rile the local council as much as possible. For example, if this play was ever shown at Durham’s Gala Theatre, I would expect a reference to an unspecified multi-million contract for a new unspecified IMAX film about the history of the unspecified city for the opening of the new unspecified theatre/cinema development, and its award to the unspecified tennis partner of the unspecified chief executive of the unspecified city council. Instead – maybe contemplating the prospect of angry council officials on the phone, furious over the insinuation of corruption in the local council and threatening to never let them into their district again – they set the play in a fictitious remote town near the border with Lancashire (so not York, Harrogate, Scarborough, Huddersfield, or any other place the play toured to where the council might otherwise have thought the play was based on them. Wusses).

But whilst Northern Broadsides might have spared their host councils direct attention, that’s their only concession. Other than that, local government gets a very unflattering portrayal. In the original, the jury’s out on whether the Mayor or the non-inspector is the more unsympathetic character, but in this version, the council chairman Tony Belcher (Jon Trenchard) wins hands down. In common with a typical banana republic dictator, he immerses himself in cronies, soaks up their sychophancy, and uses that to inflate his own his own sense of self-importance. Jonathan Snapper (Howard Chadwick) also thrives off delusions on importance and unearned praise, but there is one difference: Belcher is a bully; Snapper is only an idiot of the highest order.

There’s a lovely passage in the original where the “inspector”, drunk on both free wine and flattery, starts reciting increasingly extravagant and implausible boasts of his own importance and power in Moscow, whilst the Mayor and his cronies believe every word and quake in their boots. In this version, Snapper goes ten steps further, with his ridiculous claims encompassing music, red carpet evenings with film stars, and authorship of Lady Chatterly’s Lover (not the D. H. Lawrence book, the other one, the racier one) all on top of a high-flying career as one of the country’s top civil servants. And, yes, they still believe every word of it.

But this adaptation also brings out the darker side of the play. In Gogol’s play, there is a scene where the poor old shopkeepers at the bottom of the pile find their way to the fake inspector to report all the irregularities, and this could have easily been glossed over to make way for a gag-fest. Instead McAndrew gives this quite some prominence in the second half, where a desperate townsman pleads with Snapper for help before being taken away and beaten up. He gets the last laugh, of course (all this attention on Snapper leaves the whole corrupt establishment fully unprepared for the imminent arrival of the real inspector), but yes, corruption isn’t all fun and games.

All in all, this Northern Broadsides production is deservedly- … oh, did I mention that the entire cast are musicians too? Yes, as well as all acting two or three parts each, they also form a brass band, with additional contributions from piano and piccolo. It is hard enough finding 12 people who can both and and play music to professional standard, but that’s not all. Because the most difficult challenge is blending live music into live acting in a way that doesn’t look awkward or contrived (something that Chris Monks struggled with earlier this year with Soul Man). But here it is blended seamlessly with the acting, hanks to director Conrad Nelson’s compositions and musical director Rebekah Hughes. Even the bit where the shopkeepers talk to Snapper by playing their brass instruments works.

There are so many other good bits of this play I could go into, but to cover them all would practically require reciting the whole script. Barrie Rutter will surely always the the centrepiece to Northern Broadsides, but the partnership of McAndrew and Nelson could well be their next most valuable asset. The only bad thing I say saw is … the play’s finished. Yes, the Saturday I saw it in York was the end of the run. So if anyone from Northern Broadsides is reading this, please note this: A Government Inspector deserves a revival, sooner rather than later. I know you have a lot of projects coming up and new things to try out, but when you get it this right it’s a shame to see it disappear again so soon. And with the writing and directing so closely tied in with the cast, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Northern Broadsides doing it justice. And if Durham County Council won’t let you do it in the Gala, you can have my living room.

Ike Award for outstanding theatre: A Government Inspector, Northern Broadsides

One thought on “A Government Inspector: thank you, City Hall, for being a good sport

  1. Peter M December 26, 2012 / 10:13 pm

    The only bad thing I say saw is … high praise indeed!

    [Point taken. Typo corrected – Chris.]

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