BAC (Battersea Arts Centre), London SW11
Opened 11 March, 1999

Nikolai Gogol's dark grey comedy, dating from 1843, is the prototype for all "sting" storylines right up to David Mamet's film House Of Games. As we watch Iharev's attempts to fleece three other guests at the inn, their mutual discovery to one another and subsequent confederacy to pull off a 200,000-rouble con, we constantly alter our guesses throughout the 80 minutes as to who is concealing what from whom and which double-crosses are in play in what directions.

That is the author's work. In this case, the production's achievement is to detract and distract from it. Joe Spence has plainly set out to make sure his version is recognised as "new"; with a post-modernist's mania for referentiality, he includes snippets ranging from "The Man Who Broke The Bank At Monte Carlo" to Star Trek and "cash for questions". He deploys coarseness with similar calculation, as if periodically deciding, "It's about time to put in another forthright/modern/otherwise flashy bit..." The result is simply mannered.

Charlie Wood and his cast (in this co-production between the King's Head and the often bewilderingly overrated Double Edge Drama) add their own varying stripes of self-consciousness. Some nice card-dealing and sleight-of-hand are demonstrated at a couple of points; it would have been even better had similar attention been paid, say, to Gregory McFarnon's French pronunciation, Tam Williams's stubborn persistence as Iharev in referring to two characters named Glov as "Glove", or the fact that, when using a quill pen, a source of ink is also required.

Such little things, taken individually, do no more than niggle, but there comes a point when, by accretion, they attain a critical mass when individual imperfections become persuasive aggregate evidence that a production simply is not working properly. That point was reached, for me, more or less when Michael Palmer's Lyulyukov rejoices in his coup of being appointed guardian to young Glov, and his confrères' praise of him seems particularly strained. This was the moment at which I realised that the reason I had been free to pay so much attention to irritating minutiae was that the cast of nine exhibit absolutely no sense of interconnection. Even the trio of long-time conspirators seem to be turning in three quite autonomous performances. If the very actors do not seem to approach the play as any more than the sum of its parts, why should an audience?

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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