The corrupt officials make eejits, rather than idiots, of themselves in Dubbeljoint's zestful new adaptation of The Government Inspector. With tremendous point and punch, Marie Jones has shifted Gogol's great comedy from Tsarist Russia in the 1830s to late 19th-century Ireland and one of the border counties that would pass from Westminster's control to Dublin's after the 1922 partition.
Gogol's jumpy provincial personnel thus become a shower of ambivalent colonials and jittery Irish fraudsters. They are keen to pull a fast one on England when they can - raising cattle, say, for furtive export to the continent on land acquired by ruthless eviction of the peasantry. And, here, farcically, their first clandestine meeting to discuss the rumoured arrival of an incognito inspector takes place in the cold storage amid whacking great sides of this illicit beef. But, though they are indignant about the old country, they are also twitchy about losing links and are thrown into consternation at the thought of ending up on the wrong side of any divide.
Pam Brighton's highly entertaining production has a rough, rambunctious verve, though the conception and casting of the central Khlestakov-figure perhaps blunt the comic point of the original play. Gogol emphasises the comic psychology of the corrupt townsfolk (paranoid nervousness, coupled with a perverse compulsion to confess) by having them project the identity of the inspector on to an insignificant clerk, who (first unwittingly, then consciously) goes along with the mistake.
Here, Dan Gordon turns in a high-energy, likeably knock-about performance and is very funny in some of the set-piece routines - the scene, say, where he has disguised the fact that he has the major's wife in bed with him as he receives a string of visitors anxious to offer him bribes. But the fact that the adaptation turns this character into the son of reduced English nobility makes the locals' misapprehension too understandable. The result is an absence of that mad, whirling phantasmagoric feel you got from the version brought to Lift a few years back by Hungary's Katona Joszef Theatre.
The show is, nevertheless, to be warmly recommended, with Jones's script managing to release a stream of pointed jokes from the Irish setting. For example, a politically problematic teacher has been noticed at the local school treating the children to an impersonation of a raging bull. When he hears that this performance was to illustrate the story of an eviction, one hide-bound official completely misses the point, and sniffs that, in his experience, all the peasants they've evicted have gone very quietly. The sight gags are equally good, particularly involving the imposter's servant (Sylvester McCoy), who is jumpily convinced that, after centuries of in- breeding, the Irish are all covert cannibals, and the Major's sexually frustrated wife (Eileen Pollock) whose desire to feed on male flesh, in quite a different sense, helps refuel the cannibal-fantasy.
I have to confess that I arrived at the Tricycle Theatre in a foul mood, having just spent the best part of two days at the mercy of British Rail. This production proved the perfect antidote, offering both an intriguing angle on the Ireland of the time and an enjoyably refreshed sense that this is one of the greatest comedies in world drama.
The Government Inspector continues until 6 March at the Tricycle Theatre, 269 Kilburn High Road, London NW6 (Box office: 071-328 1000)
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