Director Richard Jones knows the secret of excess. Grand gestures are all over the stage in his idiosyncratic take on Gogol’s “Government Inspector” but, as is typical of the most operatic of British directors, his sensibility of flagrant exaggeration is backed up with riveting detail. Still, although the production has moments of wildly imaginative craziness often led by Nicky Gillibrand’s eye-popping comic costumes, the gears don’t quite mesh to sustained theatrical effect.
Gogol’s satire is a two-way tussle featuring a wildly corrupt mayor in panic mode since discovering the imminent arrival of a government inspector in his backwater town. Terrified that he will be found out and hounded out, he puts every local bureaucrat and family member into overdrive in an effort to impress, placate and bribe the bigwig. Only trouble is, the inspector is nothing of the sort. He’s Khlestakov, a down-on-his-luck clerk who takes advantage of the case of mistaken identity, and then some. Cue organized chaos.
For the play to work, tension between the opposing camps must be maintained, but Jones’s casting works against him. Julian Barratt, one half of maverick comedy duo The Mighty Boosh, plays the mayor in a choice that pays off tonally, but the actor lacks the vocal chops for farce. His performance is fuzzy around the edges when farce cries out for vocal and visual precision.
There’s considerably more zing from Kyle Soller as his adversary. Like a red-haired mop undergoing electric shock treatment, his performance is simultaneously willowy and wired. Yet while he more than avails himself of the opportunities afforded by David Harrower’s new version, the script turns him into something of a solipsist, which means he only rarely engages with those around him.
That lack of connective energy is underlined by Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting. She indulges her favorite color — disorientating acid green — and adds rampant red to cast everything and everyone in a fierce attitude. But comedy needs visual control, and the sweep of light across Miriam Buether’s wide-open set often flattens things out.
On the considerable plus side, however, the evening is distinguished by first-rate comic turns, not least Amanda Lawrence as the male postmaster, tight and pompous as her moustache. Her unctuous, perfect physical mirroring of Khlestakov is the show’s highlight. But she’s run a close second by lust-crazed Doon Mackichan, magnificently rising above fabulously lurid costumes.
Jones has a field day animating the townsfolk. Steven Beard brings the house down as a sweaty, taciturn German merely by slinking around the walls of the room, and Buffy Davis has treasureable moments just arching a long-suffering eyebrow or delivering the final putdown of the mayor with killer timing.
Glorious though those moments are, they also point up the lack of charged energy in other sections. Highly unusually for Jones, some of the crowd scenes lack punch. The flair, on this occasion, is fitful.