At the National Theatre, David Farr’s The U.N. Inspector says it’s freely adapted from Gogol’s Russian satire, but now we can really compare the two. It’s 170 years old, but the original still makes a lot of sharp points without requiring any major updates. Alistair McGowan is on solid form as a penniless nobody who’s mistaken for the Tsarist official sent to check up on a corrupt mayor and his pack of cronies.
The comedy works in a variety of ways. There’s the savage satire of small-town officials using their positions just to feather their own nests; the comedy of watching them frantically sucking up to the wrong man; and the delight as this vain fellow takes their flattery and their desperate bribery in his stride. By the end, the town officials have all been hoist with their own petards; but, Gogol implies, so have we the audience.
Alistair Beaton, who wrote the Blairite political satire Feelgood in 2001, has made a translation that sounds playable and contemporary, rather than working in a load of little ideas of his own. Alistair McGowan seems a little ill at ease onstage, but he compensates by broadening his performance rather than clamming up. It’s the right decision. He sweeps around the stage impressively in a long coat or a dressing gown.
The play works fine on its own terms, but every so often (especially towards the end) director Martin Duncan insists on putting in moments of heightened “whoo-whoo!” unreality that trip things up. They’re big but they’re not clever. Apart from these outbursts, Duncan hits the right note of exaggeration for the sleazy officials, who are led by Graham Turner’s shaven-headed thug of a mayor. If only he’d stop turning it up to 11!
The key to the play is a passing remark made by McGowan’s character about the importance of love and respect. It’s because the municipal fraudsters have lost these feelings that they see deceit where there is none, and so they end up ruining their own foul schemes. Tony Blair today might like the bit about respect, but I don’t think he’d enjoy the dramatic picture of politicos who can’t even lie straight in bed.
Written for Teletext.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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