Review: Five-Star Cast Grapples With Third-Rate Script In Gogol Adaptation

The Government Inspector, Marylebone Theatre ★★★☆☆

Last Updated 10 May 2024

Review: Five-Star Cast Grapples With Third-Rate Script In Gogol Adaptation The Government Inspector, Marylebone Theatre 3
The show's three leads
The Government Inspector features an impeccable class of comedians.

Fawlty Towers debuts on the London stage this week — and one of the three classic episodes the sitcom's co-creator John Cleese has weaved into the play's narrative sees splenetic hotelier Basil Fawlty fawn over various gentlemen he wrongly suspects are hotel inspectors. You're not reading the wrong review: Cleese was inspired by Gogol's The Government Inspector, which — as chance would have it — has also just started a run.

Watching the latter is the highbrow option: after all, it's penned by Nikolai Gogol, set in 19th century Russia, and was once described by the Telegraph as one of the 15 greatest plays ever written. But stripped down, both Fawlty Towers and The Government Inspector are farces based around a case of mistaken identity, and as Patrick Myles, the latter's adapter and director, writes in the programme: "the bottom line is that this play has got to be funny." So is it?

The cast certainly has funny bones. Dan Skinner (who some will remember as the comatosely placid Angelos Epithemiou in Shooting Stars) is anything but chilled as the mutton-chopped Governor Swashprattle — a corrupt official hornswoggled by the louche Percy Fopdoodle (Kiell Smith-Bynoe of 'Ghosts' fame, who again, couldn't be further from his best-known TV character) into waiting on him hand and foot, in the incorrect assumption he's a government inspector who can have him clapped in irons at the click of a finger.

There are also enjoyable turns from another Ghosts star, Martha Howe-Douglas, who is Swashprattle's handsy wife, and Chaya Gupta, playing Swashprattle's mixed-up daughter, whose ragdoll-esque pratfalls are some of the best slapstick of the night.

The script's the problem. Likeable as Fopdoodle is as a footloose and fancy-free antihero, there's a conspicuous lack of stakes. The cad connives and connives but never gets rumbled (and we probably wouldn't care if he did). Likewise, Swashprattle is too dim and self-centred to cotton on to the ruse — and would we really care if he did? Apparently, Gogol purposefully emitted sympathetic characters from the play — but on the modern day stage, this is problematic. Nothing escalates. There are no repercussions. The cast jigs around one misunderstanding for two hours. Like noshing a whole sharing bag of Doritos to yourself, it's enjoyable enough, but ultimately leaves you feeling empty. Meanwhile, the parallels between corrupt 19th century Russian officials and today's British raft of politicians feels muddled — not least because of Russia's incumbent maniac.

Both The Government Inspector and the Fawlty Towers Hotel Inspectors episode end with a near-identical guttural howl. The difference is that at the end of The Government Inspector, no one in the audience is howling with laughter.

The Government Inspector, Marylebone Theatre, until 15 June.