The Theatreguide.London Review
The UN Inspector
Olivier Theatre Summer 2005
Nikolai Gogol's 1836 satire The Government Inspector shows the corrupt mayor and burghers of a Russian village mistaking an innocent traveller for a high official.
David Farr has updated it and upped the ante, setting it in a former Soviet country whose president and ministers think a seedy British estate agent comes from the UN to expose their corruption.
The satire works just as well on this broader scale, though the changes also expose its comic limits. Basically, it's a two joke play - the officials trip over themselves kowtowing to the supposed inspector, and he blindly enjoys the attention, innocently saying and doing things that just reinforce their error.
They're good jokes, but they do wear pretty thin even before the end of the first act, and David Farr, acting as his own director, can't charge things with the kind of farcical speed and energy that would keep things bouncing along.
Act One sinks into an overlong drunk scene for the visitor (including too many repetitions of that hoariest of old gags, drinking a surprisingly strong brandy and being unable to speak), in which he gets carried away in self-aggrandizing lies.
Act Two gets considerably stranger, as some more comic business, as they take turns offering him bribes, is followed by the shocking and very serious discovery that they aren't just corrupt buffoons but deeply evil despots.
This revelation is then followed by more comedy, built on the guy's attempted seductions of the President's wife and daughter, and then by even more revelation of the regime's true evil.
By the time the script has the President turn and say directly to the audience 'What are you laughing at?' you are very aware that you haven't been laughing, having lost all sense of whether you were meant to.
As the visitor, Michael Sheen gives a very odd performance that amounts to a striking impersonation of TV comic Rik Mayall - the mix of flailing arms, bulging-eyed mania, comically inflated ego, and out-of-the-character's-depth-ness.
It only serves to remind those with long memories that Mayall himself starred in a particularly lifeless production of the Gogol original in this same theatre in 1985.
Kenneth Cranham plays the President with the slightly desperate air of an actor who knows his character makes no sense from scene to scene but figures he might as well play each moment full out and damn the continuity. Nobody else onstage seems quite comfortable being there.
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