May 25, 2011
Corrupt and self-serving officials in a small town in the middle of the Imperial Russian nowhere have for donkey’s years been making merry with the funds and handing out jobs for the boys. Out of the blue arrives word that a government inspector is about to descend upon them from a great height. The gravy train is on course for the buffers and the apple cart is about to be turned upside down (if my culinary metaphors are bit mixed I’ll blame the first-night Siberian wind sweeping in from Omsk - or was it Tomsk? - into the gardens of University College. How grateful was I for my Daily Info-issue muffler and long johns). Before the books can be cooked, Khlestakov, a penniless braggart on the scrounge from the big city pops up, is mistaken for the great man, and we settle down to a comedy of mistaken identity as the fawning locals toady for favours.
The Master’s Garden, University College, 25 - 28 May 2011
What with our MPs’ duck houses and penchant for clean moats, not to mention backbiting coalitions and shattered university fee promises, Nikolai Gogol’s play from 1836 has lost not one jot of relevance. The link between Gogol’s world and ours suggests a certain stasis; as the players move exuberantly through the thicket of comedy, life and people are revealed as essentially unchanged despite the passing of 175 years.
The Univ. Players’ 13-strong cast defied the freezing elements before a somewhat sparse first night audience of 25. In both respects they deserved better. Director Jack Peters has capably trodden the fine line between playing up the knockabout comedy whilst not neglecting the social satire, though I felt that the physical space between players and audience could with advantage be reduced.
Khlestakov, with James Skinner looking and sounding like a muted Boris Johnson, is impressively fluent though perhaps lacking a little in variety (I could have done with a few more boorish outbursts). He is backed up by a gallery of self-serving, petty apparatchiks led by a nicely wheedling Judge Ammos (James Carroll), and Russia’s answer to Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Messrs Bobchinsky (a lively Esme Hicks) and Dobchinsky. But the star turn is Felix Legge as the mayor. He dominates the show, alternately cajoling, blustering, grovelling and then threatening. His verbal dexterity as he switches from his dialogue to asides to the audience is matched by fluent movement. He’s a class act, on his own a compelling reason to see the show.