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> > > Ramps on the Moon and Birmingham Rep present The Government Inspector

Ramps on the Moon is a project run by a consortium of seven theatres aimed at addressing the under-representation of disabled people in the sector over the next six years. The latest production in association with Birmingham Rep is Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector which is touring 19 March – 25 June 2016. Liz Porter caught a performance in Birmingham.

Actress Kiruna Stamell in the Government Inspector. She is wearing a formal blue dress and holding a receipt in her hand.

Kiruna Stamell as Anna. Photograph: Robert Day

The Government Inspector is a 2.5-hour tour de force, which is fast paced and furiously funny. With such a long runtime, the audience do have their work cut out, as the play is extremely wordy. But it’s so worth it.

If this latest production is anything to go by, we are in for a treat as Ramps on the Moon builds momentum over the next six years of activity. I predict we’ll see a positive change of attitude and approach to creative, accessible theatre that embraces creative casting and audience development and should make a real difference in how Deaf and disabled actors are perceived and cast.

The Government Inspector was originally written in 1835 (over a century before Becket and Inonesco) by Russian playwright Nikolai Gogol. The play is a satire considered to be a frightening, grotesque tragic comedy that explores themes of power, oppression and class.

Birmingham Rep’s interpretation brings us up to date, and it’s not difficult to relate to, given our times of austerity, back-stabbing, and political corruption, the brunt of all of which is borne most by disabled people.  

With an integrated cast of Deaf, disabled and non-disabled actors, it’s simultaneously performed in English, BSL, captioned and video projection with live audio description (AD). Ramps on the Moon are certainly pushing the boundaries around creative casting and access – particularly with BSL. 

Photograph of actor David Carlyle in the Government Inspector, he is wearing a 19th Century style blue overcoat and gesturing with a sword.

David Carlyle excels as the Mayor. Photograph: Robert Day.

There are a slew of intelligently crafted performances. David Carlyle as the Mayor fantastically dances through words with frenetic movement and his use of space is excellent. Yet, it is the women who excel most in this production, with provocative, powerful and brilliantly funny characters delivered by Kiruna Stamell (Anna) Francesca Mills (Maria) and Rhona McKenzie (the Locksmith's Wife).

Special mention goes to Jean St Claire as the Judge for her dynamic, graceful and charismatic performance in BSL. It was a clever device to have the Clerk (Rebekah Hinds) deliver the voiceover – how often do we need to go through the clerks to speak to the higher officer?  

The set design is innovative. We find ourselves in the lobby of a council building with revolving doors, stairs and even a lift that speaks when characters go up a level, demonstrating both good and bad physical access.

The show is billed as suitable for 12+. Having taken my 12-year-old daughter, I feel 14+ is probably more accurate. She was somewhat embarrassed by the level of sexual innuendos and much of the content went over her head. Nevertheless, the next morning she was recalling a lot of the subtext and meanings and had clearly enjoyed many of the more comic moments.

A photograph of Francesca Mills as Maria and Rachel Denning as Dobchinsky. The former is leaning in looking surprised while the latter has her hands on her hips and is laughing.

Francesca Mills as Maria (left) and Rachel Denning (right) as Dobchinsky. Photograph: Robert Day.

The creative casting works well and proves how easy it is to cast Deaf and disabled actors within productions that are not necessarily about disability issues. More of the same please.

Although the BSL is effective, the AD does need more development. The concept of an on-stage character describer isn’t going to work for all productions, but I think it could for this one. Describer/performer Amanda Wright took up the challenge, but it only partially worked because there is so much action on stage it was difficult for the describer to remain in character. Descriptions fluctuated between objective and subjective and it wasn’t always clear where people were. Perhaps there could have been more use of on-stage sound technology.  

Because the AD is delivered through headsets, only those requesting it are privy to the messages it contains. This is a shame, especially as at times various characters speak directly to the audience. I hope Ramps on the Moon will look into AD in more depth in future productions and include blind and partially sighted consultants and performers in the AD delivery.

This is an onward journey and Ramps on the Moon have got off to a great start. The pre-show access offer at Birmingham Rep has improved tremendously with programmes in alternative formats and a mini set design on display, lessons already previously learnt through their involvement with Graeae's Threepenny Opera. This is definitely a show to catch if you can.

The Government Inspector is on tour until 25 June, for full listing details see here.