Chichester 2005 – July 7

The Government Inspector/Lee Miller, Chichester Theatre

The Government Inspector\Six Pictures of Lee Miller (Chichester) – Carole Woddis

*** (three stars\****)four stars)

It was a strange day to be seeing anything, never mind a double bill in West Sussex. How could anything, even Gogol’s gloriously ripe social farce or a musical about an American social rebel from upstate New York have anything useful to say about the reality of mayhem brought to one’s own backyard. On 7\705, I left London with a strange sense of unreality and returned at midnight with even stronger feelings of misgivings to a reality I really didn’t care to be returning to.

But in between times, of course, the show – that engineered suspension of disbelief and unreality – must go on. And at Chichester, chintzily tucked away behind the South Downs Ruth Mackenzie, Steve Pimlott, and Martin Duncan make sure these days they provide precisely that – a little bit of escape here and, there, something rather more heady. As Anna Francolini’s Lee Miller puts it, `artists are the conscience of the world…and artists must engage’.

Miller, born Elizabeth Miller in 1923 in Poughkeepsie, New York – a town crying out to be memorialised – certainly did engage, in her own inimitable way. A one-time fashion model turned Vogue photographer who knew everybody there was to know in early 20th century art circles, you sense she also engineered affairs as much as she became the abiding muse of such extravagant modernists as Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Man Ray. As recent `retrospectives’ in Scotland and London have shown, Miller also became a brave and respected war photojournalist in her own right.

Jason Carr and Ed Kemp take such unlikely material – well, you try putting the Surrealist movement and the `liberation’ of Dachau to music – and turn it into a piece of musical theatre with class written all over it. If, for a creation all about gazing it unfortunately lacks visual oomph, it more than makes up for it in Anthony Van Laast’s slick, stylish production, Jason Carr’s limpid, Sondheimish score, Sue Blane’s exquisite ’30s and ’40s period costumes, the wit of Kemp’s `book’ (taken from Miller’s son, Antony Penrose’s memoir of his mother) and most of all, the knockout performance of Francolini herself, all hard, New York wisecracks hiding troubled neurosis.

An ensemble piece in every sense of the word, Martin Duncan’s The Government Inspector also benefits from its collective richness endowing Gogol’s comic nightmare with a proper, authentic grotesquerie unachieved by David Farr’s recent National Theatre version. Alistair Beaton’s adaptation takes fewer liberties, retaining its 19th century Russian imperial setting and boasting a central performance of Berkoffian venality from Graham Turner as the bullying, corrupt mayor. As Khlestakov, the humble civil servant mistakenly taken for a high-ranking government official, tv’s Alistair McGowan, however, settles for benign charmer rather than Michael Sheen’s mesmerisingly dangerous NT fantasist.

Both, though are sufficiently robust to make one forget, for a while, the reality outside whilst reminding one of their infinite connections. The art of the artistic con helps one  survive precisely that external, `real world’ other.

Chichester Festival season 05 runs to Sept 10


First published in The Herald in July 2005