Preview: A Government Inspector

Playwright Deborah McAndrew tells Sophie Haydock how Northern Broadsides’ latest production, A Government Inspector, illustrates the age-old problem of greed and corruption

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Political corruption, greed and the weaknesses of the human spirit are themes that never go out of fashion. The proof is a new adaptation of Gogol’s The Government Inspector by the acclaimed theatre company Northern Broadsides, which comes to the north this month. Although it’s changed the “The” in the title to an “A”, the classic political comedy is as relevant to modern audiences as it was to those who first saw it in Russia in the 19th century.

“Gogol had an instinct for observing human behaviour,” says the playwright Deborah McAndrew, who adapted the story of a stranger in a small town being mistaken for a high-powered government inspector for a British audience. “He was very moral, interested in good and evil, and the ways the human spirit can be corroded.”

McAndrew increased the pace of the original, but didn’t alter much with regards to its theme. “It’s about corruption, and that’s universal,” she says. In the play, the locals, each motivated by greed and self-interest, start buttering up a mystery visitor, and the bribes soon follow. The stranger, enjoying the attention as well as the backhanders, keeps his true identity quiet, with darkly humorous consequences.

“It’s those elements I like: darkness and humour interlinked,” says McAndrew. “Gogol saw these dark little corners of the world, where nobody is really looking – places where the corruption happens, where people break the rules.”

Even now, McAndrew says, there are those who will always take a backhander. “The world is full of honest people and dishonest people. That’s what we’ve seen with Westminster and the expenses scandal and with the Leveson inquiry. Where there’s a culture of ‘Oh, this is how we do it’ people do. It’s very rare that somebody will stand up and say: ‘Actually, I don’t do that!’ They just won’t get on.”

A Government Inspector certainly has universal appeal, but this adaptation is particularly relevant to northerners. The action happens in the north, in a town geographically and culturally remote from the centre of government. McAndrew set the play in the Pennines, where her father worked – aptly enough – in local government when she was a child. “I want this version to feel like it’s in the sticks, in a backwater – somewhere like Marsden or Saddleworth.”

“The place in the original is thousands of miles from St Petersburg. We don’t have distances like that in the UK, but ideologically, anywhere outside of London feels remote,” McAndrew says.

“When I moved to London, my Leeds family thought it was a long, long way away. That’s what we’re playing with.”

The issue of “northernness” is handled so adeptly not only because Northern Broadsides has such a long and skilled history representing the region but also thanks to McAndrew’s own experience of working with the Yorkshire-based company: this is the fourth play she has adapted for it. She also has deep links to the area. She was born in Huddersfield in 1967, and later studied drama at Manchester University.

Before becoming a playwright, McAndrew worked as an actor. Twenty years later, she still hasn’t been able to shake off the memory of her most defining character: as Angie Freeman in Coronation Street during the 1990s. “The public haven’t let me forget those days,” she laughs. “People still come up to me, and say: ‘I know you.’ I don’t mind, but it was a long time ago.”

McAndrew’s husband, Conrad Nelson, directs and also composed the music for this adaptation, which includes a live brass band. The couple first worked for the company together in 2004, on a version of Leopold Lewis’s classic melodrama The Bells, and more recently collaborated on Accidental Death Of An Anarchist, in 2008. “Working with Con on this is absolutely fine. But sometimes, he does need me to back off!”

How will the audience react to A Government Inspector? Will they be offended by what’s insinuated by the themes of the play? “I hope they like what I’ve done. From past experience, I know that in the north they’re not afraid of being roughed up a bit. They like a comedy and they like a challenge.”

The Dukes, Lancaster, 9-13 Oct; Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, 16-20 Oct; Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, 24-27 Oct; Theatre Royal, York, 27 Nov -1 Dec

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