Where there’s muck there’s brass. And where there’s involvement from Northern Broadsides, there will probably be a fairly strong brass contingent as well. Music has always been one of the theatre company’s strongest suits, as this Yorkshire rewrite of Nikolai Gogol‘s satirical masterpiece shows. You might even describe them as a sterling brass ensemble that can also act a bit.
Deborah McAndrew’s adaptation transposes the action from the Russian steppes to an obscure Pennine town where people speak as they find: Howard Chadwick’s bluff council leader is, perhaps a little surprisingly, capable of quoting Plato, if only to observe that “it proves folk had learned to talk out of their arses 2,000 years ago”. But the blunt expose of parochial paranoia is only part of the story – and the fun really starts when Conrad Nelson’s production begins to treat Gogol’s feverish vision as an early example of the theatre of the absurd.
At its heart is a frenetic display of petulant foppishness from Jon Trenchard as a self-regarding pen-pusher mistaken for a Westminster bigwig. “I’m so hungry I’m about to hallucinate,” he declares. “So at least I’ll have that to look forward to.” Nelson ensures there’s an edge to the action, which suggests it is all a rather ghastly dream in which everyone’s basest instincts are revealed.
The problem – Gogol’s as much as Nelson and McAndrew’s – is that the specific nature of the town’s municipal misdeeds are glossed over, which can leave much of the authority figures looking like empty caricatures rather than culpable human beings. But it is the resounding music (in Nelson’s own arrangements) that roots the action to a specific time and place. You can pick holes with the script, but in the end there’s no arguing with a tuba.