Ben Miller at last night's opening
Ben Miller at last night's opening
© Dan Wooller

The trouble with a farce about another farce - the MPs' expenses scandal that broke in 2009 shortly before the election that ushered in the coalition government - is that the satirical target is very large and also too obviously funny to start with.

So what television writers Colin Swash and Dan Patterson - they've written gags for Clive Anderson, Graham Norton, Have I Got News for You and Mock the Week - have done is throw everything up in the air and hope that some of it sticks and gets a laugh.

The basic situation is that comedian Ben Miller (best known for being half of Armstrong and Miller) plays an unprincipled Labour MP, Robert Houston, who is defecting to the Conservatives and hoping for a cabinet seat in the new government; and, as the scandal breaks, he's being vetted by a Tory grandee, Sir Norman Cavendish (Simon Shepherd), an intimate of David Cameron who himself (Cavendish, not Cameron) proves to be a perverse scoundrel.

So while Miller does some fairly good frantic rushing about as he tries to disguise his deceitfully funded perks which correspond exactly to some of the items we were regaled with at the time of the exposure - a glittery toilet seat, a plethora of hanging baskets, elephant lamps, a supply of manure, the famous duck house - his situation is ludicrous rather than really dangerous.

And once the point is made, the writers and director Terry Johnson have to widen it beyond the central issue to provide some lurid hanky-panky in the second act - where the MP's "second home" has been decorated in punk Gothic style (the designer is Lez Brotherston) and used as a sex parlour by the MP's son's girlfriend.

Strenuously drawing together other strands such as the MP's wife Felicity (gracefully done by Nancy Carroll) being shocked out of her delusions of grandeur - "At last we're Tories! No more bottles of Jacob's Creek" - and the homophobic Russian immigrant housekeeper Ludmilla (Debbie Chazen) turning traitor, the show dissolves in some deeply unfunny physical antics involving cupboards, slammed doors and a pair of giant panda costumes.

These are the outward trappings of a good farce, but there's no real panic or structure to the proceedings, just an accumulation of gags and coincidences that don't seem genuinely rooted in anyone's intensity of feeling or overall farcical rhythm.

Houston, of course, is employing his son (James Musgrove) and wife as researcher and secretary, so they have as much to hide as son's girlfriend (Diana Vickers), an acupuncturist from Burnley who's been pushed into a dubious "service" profession by son's accelerating debts on foreign cock fights.

Miller's best moments are when he's actually standing still, or miming, for reasons that now escape me, slow motion sumo wrestling. It's certainly depressing to be reminded just how little we respect our politicians, but on the day of Nelson Mandela's memorial in Soweto - and Barack Obama's great oratory - it didn't seem to be all that funny. Not in this glibly conceived and poorly executed play, anyway.

PHOTOS BY DAN WOOLLER FOR WHATSONSTAGE.COM