‘Gentlemen, I have some bad news. A Government Inspector is on his way.’ And with those words by Tony Wilson as the mayor in Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol’s play The Government Inspector the comedy drama began with a full run-through, a dress rehearsal and four sold out nights in the Town Hall. And what an experience it proved to be – so different from those Sunday afternoon rehearsals when none of us knew our lines and it all seemed a bit disjointed. We should not have worried as the director David Parkin brought everything together, was inclusive in the way he schooled members of the cast – some having never acted before – and produced a drama as good (if not better) as any presented on an amdram stage. And yes, the final result delighted the sell-out audiences due to David’s work but also because of the playwright’s skill in layering in depths to the characters and the dialogue that only manifest themselves when brought to life on stage. Indeed, much of the humour comes from the physical aspects of the action – the expressions, the body language and of course the entrance of the wheelbarrow.

And so to the non-review-review: as the Magistrate I rather enjoyed myself and camped it up as the hunting shooting philanderer and keeper of domestic geese – it’s one of the most enjoyable Axbridge Community Theatre productions I’ve been in due to the director’s style and diverse cast – and the play of course.

The main two characters had vast amounts of dialogue to master with several long speeches – around which the story is framed. Tony Wilson as the Mayor was perfectly cast – he was a former Mayor of Axbridge of course. His strong voice, natural confidence and assertive body language gave his ebullient character the upholstery on which to articulate and flesh out his role – gaining applause for his ‘laughing at you’ speech. Tony Leach as ‘the government inspector’ Khlestakov was both wonderfully louche once he had been won over by the mayor but equally brittle and desperate at the beginning when he is starving and penniless. His servant Osip is one of the play’s grounded personalities. Played with a down to earth and matter of fact tone Phil Saunders gave a suitably earthy performance as Khlestakov’s servant.

The town’s officials included the German speaking Doctor Hubner played by Marina Kirichenko who only had to speak nonsensical German to get the audience laughing. Yes, to our shame we still laugh at the Germans. I think we all enjoyed the occasional friction between the Mayor and the Health Commissioner since Jude Wilson is Tony Wilson’s son and some of the lines delivered had an added family tension to them. Jude’s hyper confident but dotty health commissioner was in contrast to my effeminate style, which worked as a kind of double act. Nigel Newton was the sheepish and hesitant head of education who was so embarrassed by Khlestakov’s interrogation of his sex life that he seemed about to run for the fire exit. His money-in-the-shoe scene was one of those outstanding bits of physical theatre that the audience loved.

Christine Cuthbert as the Postmaster played her role with a soothing calmness that neatly contrasted with the over active characters who hung on her every word as the plot unfolded in a drama as Marieke Roebuck said was ‘the one play you can over act in.’ Which brings me to Marieke Roebuck (Dobchinsky) and Katie Underhay (Bobchinsky) as the famous double act of over excited airheads. As Tony Wilson said, ‘you’re my favourites’ – and it’s hard not to see why as Gogol injects them into the narrative like a shot of adrenalin. The duo were brilliant – high speed dialogue – great physicality and excellent at improvising and playing off each other.

There were more double acts – Janet Gwynn and Bliss Daniels as the Mayor’s wife and daughter respectively. Janet in her role as the pompous, over sexed and ambitious wife brought a huge amount of humour to the role as she overplays her hand in the final scene – and strikingly different from her shy daughter superbly portrayed by a butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth Bliss.

Another brilliant double act was in the I-was-so-happy-I-cried scene in which competing for happiest wife of the year prize were Sonia Chery as the Education Commissioner’s wife and my stage wife played by Katie Weir. If only Gogol had made that scene longer as the exaggerated claims of happiness reached heights that even Anne Shelley in Anne of Green Gables would have been equally ‘thrilled’ with.

Since I am not in several scenes I could only listen back stage to some of the action on stage. Mike and Sue Day played their parts as the Merchant Abdulin and his wife with clear diction and clarity of pronunciation (as I said – I was back stage!) And I could only imagine poor shouted at Avdotya (Jude Akhurst) who had to take the wrath of the Mayor and his family as she got out her humble ‘aahhhurr’ type lines. However, I was on stage when John Dunstone as the Superintendent and Pete Harding as the Constable played out another double act in an 1836-Stan-and-Ollie sort of way. Actually, The Constable was a bit scary – since he threatened to send me to Siberia at one stage – but again a straight role in a play of comical characters – and Pete as the Constable got the bumbling persona just right – and had the stand out moment in the play when he enters with the wheelbarrow as Mishka. Genius.

Without costumes and props we would have been lost – but we had Lesley Williams and Sandra Slingsby who did such a good job and much appreciated – and Lesley also appeared in the play as a very stylish Superintendent’s wife with her bouquet for Bliss – and was suitably gushing in her congratulations to the bride-to-be.

One of the joys of backstage life was seeing Marina work on the hair and makeup of the cast – and in particular her magic with Kelly Gardner’s beautiful long blond hair. Each night it was styled differently – and in her dark evening gown Kelly added glamour as Korobhin’s wife in the final scene as she calls out the Mayor’s family for the pigs that they are. Such acid lines from such sweet lips – super casting. Her stage husband and prompter for three nights was Robin Mace whose voice and demeaner were just right for reading THAT letter at the end. And my thanks to Robin when he was prompter on Thursday for saving me by whispering ‘of course…’ after I dried – although I blame the Mayor for whacking me nearly unconscious with a copy of Horse and Hound! Which leaves the final words of the play to the Town Crier of Axbridge Nigel Scott – word perfect, clear and authoritative, and with a stage presence bar none.

Harry Mottram

Note: this was written before the last night – which Robin missed due to a bad cough and cold.

The play ran in Axbridge Town Hall from Wednesday 22nd November to Saturday 25th November 2023.

Photos by Adam Clutterbuck.