So there’s no need for the Mayor, played with slimy assurance and rapid articulation by Julian Barratt of the Mighty Boosh, to tell us that we are laughing at ourselves, often the key “alienation” moment in the play; we are already implicated, sliding through the vapid acres of Miriam Buether’s wallpaper setting like the pair of toy rats who dash along the dado rail, or stand like mini-sentries at the door.
Gogol’s classic, in a zany, zesty new version by David Harrower from a literal translation by Charlotte Pyke (the patients in the hospital, for instance, are “recovering like flies”) is given the full cartoon treatment, from the moment the Mayor is chased by the moving finger of an “Incognito” sign.
The Mayor’s wife and daughter are grotesquely posed by the admirably vampish Doon Mackichan and a glinting Louise Brealey, the latter changing her dolly dress and mini-skirt every few minutes for effect. The town council line up to stuff bribes into Khlestakov’s pockets like figures in Hogarth or Daumier, their grunts and wheezes inflated in the persistent offstage ostinato of farmyard noises.
Khlestakov himself is brilliantly done by newcomer Kyle Soller (Jim in the recent Young Vic revival of The Glass Menagerie) as a debauched but still bright-eyed, red-haired minor civil servant who’s entered a dream world of unlooked for hospitality.
Paul Scofield preened his way to the front of the stage in Peter Hall’s RSC production, only saved from falling off it as the curtain descended on his third act virtuoso declamation. Soller lathers himself into a frenzied fandango, executing an Olivier-style “Hamlet” swoop before passing out on a pile of mattresses in the guest room.
Crucially, Soller effects that important shift which allows us to start despising Khlestakov for taking advantage, and the dark last third of the play, with its parade of importunate shopkeepers (a crowd of bearded Jews) and vindictive neighbours, grows smoothly out of the raw tonality and surrealism of the rest.
The small town gossips, Dobchinsky and Bobchinsky (Jack Brough and Fergus Craig), are costumed by the superbly inventive and unrestrained Nicki Gillibrand in a sort of Tyrolean tartan, while the other officials, notably Steven Beard’s perversely lubricious German doctor and Amanda Lawrence’s scary-eyed postmaster, add a sense of corruption way beyond the visual.
These people are distillations of everything that’s sick in a society of fawning celebrity-watchers and self-regarding tweeters and phone hackers, with more bungs and backhanders flying around than at a World Cup meeting of FIFA delegates.