The UN Inspector @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Michael Sheen
Kenneth Cranham
Geraldine James
Michael Gould
David Ryall
Sam Cox
Elizabeth Bell
Geofrey Beevers
Justin Salinger
Johnathan McGuiness
Daisy Haggard
Nicholas Tennant
Mark Leadbetter
Nick Fletcher
Tony Turner
Penelope McGhie
Michelle Dockery

directed by
David Farr
David Farrs loose update of Gogol’s The Government Inspector contains much to enjoy: a neat comic scenario, some fine stage actors and the potential to reflect on some very real issues. But for all it has going for it, the experiment doesn’t quite come off.

The nineteenth century Russian satire has been relocated to the present day and to some corrupt corner of what was the Soviet Union, where President Anton Skovsnik (played by the dependable Kenneth Cranham, a familiar face from a number of British gangster flicks) presides over a bunch of inept, self-serving ministers, a mixture of bumbling old men and steely relics of the country’s communist past. On discovering that a UN inspector has covertly entered the country, they panic, fearing that their cushy existence may be threatened should their dubious activities be found out.

Michael Sheen plays Martin Gammon, a feckless estate agent with a cash-flow problem whose only international connections are with the Clapham branch of Foxtons. This doesn’t stop him from being mistaken for the man from the UN and whisked to the presidential palace to be offered an increasingly hefty series of bribes. Sheen has won deserved acclaim for his theatrical roles but he’s still perhaps best known for the spot-on job he did of playing the PM in Stephen Frears’ The Deal. Here, however, he appears to be aping the mannerisms of another political figure, namely Rik Mayalls dodgy minister from The New Statesman. I know I’m not the only one to make this observation, but as Sheen mugs and double-takes in his pin-stripes it’s hard not to think of Alan B’Stard.

That’s not a criticism of his performance, just a comment, because in fact Sheen saves this production from it’s excesses. It feels heavy and overdone before his arrival and only really gets into its stride once he’s in the palace knocking back the plum brandy. This brilliantly staged bit of drunkenness is the highlight of the evening.

Events take a distinctly darker turn after the interval. There’s some stuff about the severed tongue of a political prisoner as the focus shifts onto the realities of life in such an ex-Soviet outpost. There’s a depressing plausibility to these scenes. And with programme notes about the situations in Ukraine and Turkmenistan, it’s clear that Farr had some serious points he wanted to make. But because the play operates on such a hysterical pitch right from the beginning, it’s almost impossible to reign things back in by this stage, and the final scenes, which should be chilling, which should appal, fall flat as a result.

Farr’s production is just too broad to work as satire but it doesn’t quite succeed as farce either. Sometimes it feels as if the actors are giving ‘big’ performances just in order to fill the Olivier’s great space. And it is a great space. Ti Green’s gilt-flecked, palatial set is magnificent.

For all that I’ve said, the play belongs to Sheen and Cranham. They hold it together and manage to be compelling while also being completely over-the-top. The women fair less well; the excellent Geraldine James is rather wasted as the President’s wife and Daisy Haggard, as the President’s daughter Maria, appears to be responding, with some success, to the stage direction: “be as annoying as humanly possible.”

Part of the National’s commendable Travelex 10 season, the UN Inspector is a curious creation; Farr’s script has some cracking lines and the potential to be powerful but it never quite gets there. It does demonstrate superbly however that the British public, especially a London audience, will always enjoy a good joke at the expense of estate agents.

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