Young Vic Theatre, London SE1
Opened 9 June, 2011

Stage comedy is not simply a matter of doing funny stuff, but of selling it to the audience as being funny. This lack of definition in performance is a surprisingly widespread affliction: all too often, the ideas and material are there, but that crucial crispness, the marshalling of energy to punt the gags in the right direction at the right time, is missing. This is largely the case with Richard Jones’ revival of Gogol’s classic tale. As the functionaries of a small provincial Russian town fall over themselves to fawn over a smooth-talking junior clerk whom they mistake for a St Petersburg bigwig, there is rich potential for both satire and farce. And once again, both David Harrower’s new version of the text and Jones’ staging are as full of gags as a pomegranate is of pips. Yet too often the pacing is lackadaisical, the sharpness wanting.
This is most apparent in the show’s most high-profile comic presence. Julian Barratt of The Mighty Boosh is a potentially excellent choice to play the mayor, especially since Miriam Buether’s complex set (through which the audience enters pre-show) and Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes give matters the look of an eastern European animation, a semi-surrealism in keeping with the Boosh’s style. However, punchy delivery isn’t Barratt’s forte either in the Boosh or here: he shows the Mayor’s frustration and apprehension about the inspector, but he and his town cabinet seldom conduct themselves with a speed or physical edge that conveys how much is at stake for them. The sole exception is the ever-excellent Amanda Lawrence; when she is given a two-handed scene with Kyle Soller’s equally disciplined clerk Khlestakov, their mirror routine shows the physical and temporal clarity that should inform so much of the other business. Doon MacKichan as the mayor’s wife also gets close to this pitch as she keeps trying to eclipse her nubile daughter (Louise Brealey) in flirting with Khlestakov.
Jones also underdoes the satire and grotesquerie. The usual throng of oppressed townspeople is all but absent, and the Mayor’s climactic line “What are you laughing at? You’re laughing at yourselves!” is here pointlessly flung into the wings rather than at the audience. It all makes for an evening of decent fun, but that is barely half of Gogol’s package.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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