"In an ideal world, no-one would get eaten by a crocodile." This, however, is not that world and Ivan Matveich, a flea-bitten, out-of-work actor, has indeed been eaten by a crocodile.
With the croc's owner refusing to extract him from the beast's belly – reptiles don't come cheap after all – and the local constabulary backing small business over the unemployed actor, Ivan (Ciaran Owens) has little choice but to stay put.
Making the best of a bad situation, he transforms himself into a cult hit, wriggling into his host body's limbs and rebranding himself as the all-singing, all-dancing Croc Monsieur. Pretty soon, this ardent anti-capitalist artist has become the zoo's star attraction – reaping all the rewards and the roubles that come with celebrity.
Fyodor Dostoyevksy's novella, adapted with comic zip by Tom Basden, is a snappy little satire – not just about artists propping up the system they profess to despise, turning their protests into product and smoothing their art's edges for the sake of success, but also about the way the free market co-opts us into compliance and competition.
In an attempt to restore some bite to his act, Ivan tells a story about a zoo that reframed its captive animals as employees, each paid according to their popularity. Before long, each species has invested their earnings back into their enclosures, with some soaring, some struggling and the three-toed sloths passing themselves off as cheap chimpanzees.
All this comes long before Britain's Got Talent and the Creative Industries, before Manchester's cultural regeneration and before the creative accountancy of Take That and Jimmy Carr – and Dostoyevsky's metaphor hits them all, one by one. In time, Ivan's dressed head-to-toe in free tweed, sold off his wedding snaps and spawned a copycat act: a young lad who has climbed inside an elk.
Basden keeps it all likeable and light. His adaptation could use more laughs, for sure, more of his wry, pedantic humour, and director Ned Bennett could afford to let his actors even further off the leash – boggle-eyed oddball Marek Larwood, in particular. He plays an array of townsfolk – zoo-owners and paparazzi, French waiters and the Russian tsar himself – in a frenzy of hat-swapping, but more madness wouldn't go amiss.
Owens makes a gregarious hypocrite, ostentatiously dressed in a slick alligator-skin tailcoat, scales like sequins, designed by Fly Davis. As Ivan's best friend Zack, a level-headed legal clerk, Inbetweeners star Simon Bird is, well, Simon Bird-ish – but his superior small-time schtick is exactly what the part needed – and Emma Sidi injects energy as his girlfriend Anya, who gives into celebrity to become the Croc Madame.
The Crocodile runs at Manchester International Festival until 18 July