Reviewed by Frank Barnes

The Government Inspector

By Simon Stone with Emily Barclay, devised with the cast
Featuring a short musical by Stefan Gregory
Inspired by Nikolai Gogol
Directed by Simon Stone
Belvoir and Malthouse
Belvoir Upstairs

Robert Menzies, in a priest’s costume, comes on from behind the gold curtains and addresses the audience (I paraphrase): “If you were expecting to see The Philadelphia Story I apologise: we discovered the rights were held by the author’s wife who, unknown to us, co-authored the play. If you want to leave.... So we replaced it with Gogol’s The Government Inspector and if you were expecting to see that you may leave. As nobody has left, thanks for the vote of confidence.”

And thus the stage is literally set for 90 minutes of clever farce and comedy that matches the recently seen Noises Off for a wry look at theatre and its practitioners.

At this point the set revolves and we find ourselves backstage on the set of The Philadelphia Story where the cast has just been informed about the loss of the rights to the play it was to perform.

All actors play themselves or a stereotype expansion of themselves. As they argue about what they will do we learn things about them — little of it nice — and then director Simon Stone resigns and one of the actors, Gareth Davies, chokes on a nut and dies. This is probably the weakest part of the play as it is the exposition. At the same time there are some moments that are gems as the actors are not afraid to send themselves up. Simon Stone allows some sharp observations about himself.

Someone remembers an award-winning production of War and Peace by Russian director Seyfat Babayev and also that they can do The Government Inspector which is also out of copyright and has a similar plot point with a letter suddenly arriving and changing a situation.

An actor, Frank, arrives for an audition (he looks suspiciously like the recently departed Gareth) and after a meeting with the maid who seems to look like the disenfranchised leading lady Zahra Newman he stumbles into the rehearsal room and is mistaken for the director and commences to direct the cast in the most absurd way.

One cast member gets to stand in a phone box, back to the audience, for the entire play while the rest of the cast make their entrances and exits through giant driers in a laundry. Of course, as this starts to disassemble, a letter arrives from the real Seyfat and the cast does the only thing it can in the circumstances — it puts on a musical version.

As you can see, the show follows the structure of the original play by Gogol but along the way we get to see what life can be like backstage and what actors might be like.

Robert Menzies plays the grumpy actor, unhappy with everything; Greg Stone is the ambitious actor looking for every opportunity. Fayssal Bazzi is the sensible backbone of every cast while Zahra Newman shines in her dual roles and demonstrates a great voice. Eryn Jean Norvill is a new young actress from Melbourne and one to look out for in the future while Mitchell Butel does a star turn as the campy diva who storms off to Play School but returns as he cannot break his contract. In another twist Gareth Davies as Seyfat also looks suspiciously like Simon Stone.

The musical, written by Stefan Gregory, is funny and clever and way over the top and a great way to finish this wonderful look at theatre and actors and the humanity beneath them all. What is even more amazing is that the cast members were able to get it together in just under three weeks. I am sorry I wasn’t able to see it early in its run but the Gonski campaign called and I would have recommended it to all.

When I directed On The Wallaby in 1985 I went backstage to sit and watch a scene where the entire cast had quick changes. At the beginning of the run there was turmoil, with tempers surfacing and the performers having to learn to help each other, but by the end of the run it was all smooth sailing with the early chaos forgotten and the actors all cheerfully working together. I love theatre as it says so much about us in real time and shows like this and Noises Off give general audiences a chance to see behind the scenes.

Frank Barnes is retired but not retiring.