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The UN Inspector review at Olivier National Theatre London

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Gogol’s masterpiece satirised corrupt bureaucracy in Tsarist Russia, a caricature of terrified local officials caught out by an impoverished clerk they mistake for a government inspector, who accepts their bribes and hospitality before departing with the governor’s daughter as his trophy bride.

David Farr sets his dark, updated farce in a post-Soviet state run by a brutal president (played with gritty energy by Kenneth Cranham) and his fawning apparatchiks. This bunch of self-serving crooks are guilty of gross human rights abuses, IMF loans siphoned off into foreign bank accounts and a northern province raped for personal gain.

In a manic performance by Michael Sheen, the hapless clerk becomes an incompetent British estate agent, whose own asset-stripping schemes have failed, leaving him starving and unable to pay for a flight home but mistaken for an undercover UN investigator.

The comedy potential is obvious and the energetic Sheen proves an astonishingly limber farceur, with a virtuoso drunk scene, hilarious, profitable interviews and a sexy encounter with the svelte Geraldine James as the president’s wife.

But Farr constantly undermines his comedy with swoops into grotesque cruelty, including scenes in which the tongue of a French woman journalist, cut off to ensure her silence, is bandied about as a joke, before being chewed and swallowed by Elizabeth Bell’s Kremlin spy to hide the evidence. Even the president’s daughter is coolly slaughtered to save her father’s reputation.

Cranham aims Gogol’s classic line at the audience: “What are you laughing at? You’re laughing at yourselves.” But alas, no one was laughing.

Production Information

Olivier, National Theatre, London, June 8-October 5

David Farr
National Theatre
Cast includes
Michael Sheen, Kenneth Cranham, Geraldine James, Elizabeth Bell
Running time
2hrs 45mins

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