Nikolai Gogol’s biting satire on the corruption in Tsarist Russian public life makes an effortless translation to a small modern day Pennine hill town. It is all a bit League of Gentleman but this campy, brassy update is very funny and very relevant. Plato said – the price that good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.
Councillor Belcher – the tin pot tyrant of this self-proclaimed arse end of nowhere played by the excellent Howard Chadwick – sees the Greek’s saw differently from those good democrats among us. “Proof that men have been talking bollocks for 2,000 years,” he quips. It’s funny yes, but it’s also chilling.
Playwright Deborah McAndrew drew on the career experiences of her father – a former civil servant and council officer auditing the town halls of the old West Riding – for this commission. There is certainly a touch of Yorkshire Noir.
Part of the brief was to incorporate a live brass band in the action and this is one of the stand-out features of the play. Northern Broadsides, best known for their vernacular Shakespeare productions, use live music to great effect in much of their work. Here cornets and tubas replace the voices of the down-trodden shopkeepers, jolly proceedings along between scenes and bring the surreal quality intended by its Slavic creator.
But it is the arrival of Jonathan Alexander Snapper Esq as the mistaken inspector that kick starts the dark fun in earnest. Based on an original character once memorably described as being built on a base of “placidly ambitious inferiority” Snapper, like everyone else in the play, is utterly unlikeable.
His childish demands of entitlement are as overbearing as his checked suit. Jon Trenchard produces a tour de force as the preening interloper accompanied by his brooding bodyguard cum servant, the former doorstep dosser Frank played with creeping malevolence by Tim Frances.
The enduring genius of Gogol’s work is how each character furthers their own greedy ends by feeding Snapper’s empty vices. It is the symbiosis of corruption or the anatomy of patronage. Claustrophobic small towns can breed this all too easily. So too can organisations.
The second half of the play becomes darker as it gallops along towards the inevitable twist. Perhaps it was starting to feel a little stretched towards the end but the bawdy gags still come thick and fast – not least as the Belchers’ ambitious fantasies of geographical and social escape are thwarted.
Harrogate Theatre to 22 September, then on tour to 1 December.
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