Say 'Ofsted Inspection' to a group of teachers and you can hear the resulting wails and screams of terror in mid-Atlantic. Ok, so a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point. In a small Russian village (“A pimple on God's arse”), the reaction to hearing that a government inspector is to visit their town – INCOGNITO – injects the same kind of dread into the hearts of the local dignitaries. In particular, the mayor is beside himself because he knows that the ingrained corruption which permeates every facet of bureaucratic life in his locality is going to be brutally exposed and his neck will be on the block.
Subtlety is not exactly the hallmark of this lively comedy. In fact it is quite the reverse and most deliberately so. In Richard Jones's reworking of this play by Nikolai Gogol (first published way back in 1836) the situation becomes a kind of freaky nightmare. It all starts off with the mayor chasing the word INCOGNITO around his home as he wakes from a nightmare predicting doom. The nightmare theme is continued in the garish costumes, sound effects and even the hideous wallpaper of the mayor's parlour.
Tipped-off about the impending arrival of the government inspector, the mayor assembles the various superintendents of the hospital, schools and the like to implement a massive clean-up operation. The mayor's instructions are pretty clear: “Disinfect everything that moves”. Moreover, patients are to be discharged from hospital, and their records doctored to confirm the excellence of the treatment, which is surprising as the doctor cannot even speak Russian. Instructions issued, the mayor is informed of a man staying at the local hostelry who is behaving strangely. The mayor and his henchmen decide this man must be the government inspector and decide to visit him and welcome him to the village. It's a case, of course, of mistaken identity – the visitor in question being a low-ranking official who's making a visit to his father's house and has spent all his cash during the journey.
The ordinariness of the characters is morphed into the extraordinary with panto-like costumes and hairstyles. The postmaster (no, not mistress) is superbly played by Amanda Lawrence complete with blonde moustache. In her formal costume, she looks more like a toy soldier. The German-speaking doctor wears shorts and his lanky hair gives him an air of lunacy. Two villagers – Dobchinsky and Bobchinsky (Jack Brough and Fergus Craig) – wear matching suits and Dobchinsky has a lisp.
Kyle Soller is perfectly cast as the wispish Khlestakov – the visitor who is mistaken for the government inspector. With a shock of red hair, pink shirt and bright blue trousers, his lithe, slim frame has an almost doll-like, bendable quality which is put to good comic effect when he avails himself of the mayor's hospitality and gets drunk. Julian Barratt as the anxious mayor, wears underwear which doesn't look as though it has been washed for generations, and his deathly-pale face is rather ghoulish. The mayor hates the shopkeepers with a vengeance, and when they appear they all wear the same dark blue coats and sport identical black beards. And the mayor's wife – excellently played by Doon Mackichan – wears outrageously loud frocks and speaks with an accent that would not go amiss in Eastenders.
David Harrower's new version of Gogol's play has some modern touches, particularly the inclusion of some expletives that I had better not mention here, but it's no worse for that. In fact, it actually fits well with the original concept which is essentially a satirical, earthy view of corruption and provincial life in Tsarist Russia. The result is a hugely comical production that fizzes with vitality and creativity. Great fun.
"Rich production that echoes Nabokov's claim that the play was the product of Gogol's "private nightmares peopled with his own incomparable goblins...highly inventive production ."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Director Richard Jones approaches Gogol's appealing satire in a style that's blissfully bizarre and often thrillingly original...weird and wild, is mostly a delight."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
External links to full reviews from popular press
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