Gogol grasped all the essentials of what is now called the audit process: paranoid despair, concealment, belated improvisation and sucking up. Here, Malcolm Scates as the ineffably lugubrious schools' superintendent is lost from the start: "God help anyone who goes into education; you're never safe." The town governor is more pro-active. He has a stream of suggestions for the hospital administrator, such as having only one patient per bed. In no time Julian Bleach's administrator, whose garb and manner is, appropriately, that of a professional weeper, can report they are "recovering like flies" (Adrian Mitchell's excellent version). Bob Mason gives a magnificent comic performance as the governor. His grand staircase entrance is hilariously sent up by the staircase itself preceding him, but his own presence and inventiveness is never offset by the typically ingenious mobility of Julian Crouch's set. Besides possessing a moon face that can be wily and bemused simultaneously, Mason's fine comic touch lies in what he can do not only with a line but a word, as in the way he repeatedly rolls his West Lancs vowels round the ominous "incognito", as though sniffing it from every angle. Rarely can a character have devoted more energy to the preservation of his lethargy.
But the key question in all inspections is, "Who is this inspector anyway?" This is Gogol's central joke, for Khlestakov is, of course, nobody. Only the townspeople's stupidity and anxiety makes him into "the government inspector". Having admired Toby Jones's performance as Truffaldino in Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters here, I had thought the role of Khlestakov made for him. In fact, he is uncharacteristically flat here. This may be because director Phelim McDermott wants to point up the townspeople's folly at being taken in by an impostor who is not even plausibly charismatic, or because most of Jones's strength lies in glances and inspired bits of business rather than in the extension required by such speeches as his ludicrous account of his St Petersburg celebrity.
If it is the production's intention to emphasise Khlestakov's nonentity, then it is Phelim McDermott's only miscalculation. To Julian Crouch's talent for outrageously unexpected and expressive design, he once again marries exceptional stagecraft and superb ensemble playing. The townspeople are each vividly characterised, but also rush and flutter as one neurotic body. It is a brilliant display in an extravagantly theatrical, and frequently hilarious evening.
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