The UN Inspector
Freely translated from Gogol's The Government Inspector by David Farr
Review by Philip Fisher
Twenty years ago, Rik Mayall starred at the National Theatre in Richard Eyre's production of Gogol's The Government Inspector. Somewhere along the way, Gogol (and the rest of the cast) were completely forgotten, as the soon-to-be Bottom star, for whom this was a blatant vehicle, left them way behind.
In David Farr's new version, which translates Gogol to the present day in a former Soviet republic, for too long, Michael Sheen, hamming it up as Martin Gammon, the modern-day Khlestiakov, is in danger of doing exactly the same. It is only in the last half-hour that the light comedy, directed as farce by Farr, gives way to the social and political satire that are required to justify the updating. At that point, the play takes on far greater depth and meaning.
Kenneth Cranham plays a president of a tinpot republic, leading a corrupt government that has long ago forgotten its political ideals. They have become westernised, but only to the extent that capitalist greed has become the moving force behind their strategy. There are some other trappings of Western wealth in the country but these amount to little more than the introduction of McDonald's and Ikea as well as rather startling designer dresses for the presidential womenfolk.
By contrast, the people are starving and rioting, while the north of the country has been cut off by financial impropriety. This is a result of nepotism and fraud which has ensured that major industries are run by incompetents and external aid has disappeared into numbered bank accounts in Nigeria.
The Cabinet beggars belief, comprising former KGB killers and, amusingly, a Head of Intelligence played by Geoffrey Beevers without any intelligence in his head.
When word comes that the United Nations has sent an anonymous inspector panic reigns. Unfortunately, a delightful comic duo of presidential lackeys, played by Justin Salinger and Jonathan McGuinness, mistake Sheen's pin-striped English estate agent for one of a far more sinister and secret variety. This is where the fun takes over.
Farr seems to have a commercial audience in mind as many of the influences behind this production is drawn from television and radio. While Sheen frequently gives Tony Hancock impressions, Nicolas Tennant playing his disgusting sidekick Sammy, sounds exactly like Harry H Corbett playing Steptoe's son.
Moving into the presidential palace, Geraldine James as the President's wife could as easily have been Joanna Lumley in Absolutely Fabulous mode and Daisy Haggard playing her sulky, flirtatious daughter might well have originated in the same show. Even the wonderful David Ryall playing a veteran Minister of Justice finds a Harry Secombe burble.
All of this is fun and could well delight many members of the Travelex £10 audience, especially when Sheen launches into a ten minute monologue that must leave him exhausted.
However, it is only in that last half-hour that some pathos intrudes as the President has to choose between reputation and wealth on the one hand and far more human considerations on the other. Similarly, it is at this stage that we begin to understand the difficulties of running and living in a corrupt state, as rioters besiege Ti Green's simply-designed Palace.
The UN Inspector doesn't quite work but with its cheap tickets and light-hearted fun should still prove to be a good seller. It might also project Michael Sheen, last seen playing Caligula at the Donmar, on to even greater stardom.