There must be something in the waters at present that is making Nikolai Gogol's The Government the flavour of the month. With two productions following hard on each other – this David Farr adaptation at the National will be followed in a couple of weeks by Alistair Beaton's at Chichester - it can't just be its satire on provincial corruption that can reap hilariously rich rewards. There's something more going on here, even if Farr's liberty-taking modern update tends to re-emphasise the play's dubious distinction to being little more than a star vehicle.
Certainly Michael Sheen's charismatic performance as a latter-day south London estate agent - financially caught short whilst ferreting around for cheap pickings in post-communist eastern Europe where he’s mistaken for a high-ranking government official, in this case a UN Inspector - strikes all kinds of common chords.
As Martin Remington Gammon (as Farr has renamed Gogol's original, Khlestakov), putative branch manager of the Clapham branch of Foxtons, Sheen, in smart city-slicker suit, is the kind of chancer you'd find any day in All Bar One holding forth with equal measures of absurdity and egotism.
“I'm on speaking terms with the managing director of Bovis Homes,” he announces grandiosely to Kenneth Cranham's overripe president. As the various ministers grovel and offer increasingly escalated heights of bribery, this is all good knockabout stuff. The problem is, however, that Farr's parallels are often over-strained whilst his style of grotesquerie is neither surreal nor dangerous enough until the end.
Ti Green's brash gold leaf and chromium mirror setting suddenly takes on a darker hue as the realities of the president's corrupt regime (there’s lengthy reference in the programme to the Ukraine's recent ‘orange revolution') break through in person and as shadows thunder at the doors and windows – a show of suffering to which Gammon, predictably, remains indifferent.
Herein, suddenly, lies the strength of Farr's approach. “You're laughing at yourselves,” snarls Cranham's bloated president, whirling round to confront the audience with its own laughter even as he orders the sacrifice of his own daughter and Gammon in a faked helicopter accident.
As a reflection back on our own frailty in the face of materialism, greed and sycophancy, Farr's The UN Inspector certainly has its moments. If you think they’re a long time in coming, then just sit back and relish Sheen. At £10 (as part of the National's Travelex season), it's still a bargain.
- Carole Woddis