A good idea buckles under the cumulative strain in “The U.N. Inspector,” writer-director David Farr’s cumbersome, only occasionally inspired rewrite of Nikolai Gogol’s “The Government Inspector.” Production will do strong biz as part of the National’s audience-friendly £10 Travelex Season, and it boasts a drolly pumped-up star turn from the ever-watchable Michael Sheen. But one’s good will tends to snap under the weight of a mounting sententiousness aiming to implicate us all in the action. It’s fine for Sheen’s Martin Gammon to claim, “I am everywhere,” but an Everyman he really is not.
Those favoring the original 19th-century scenario can compare and contrast this summer when the Chichester Festivalopens Gogol’s satire in a new version by Alistair Beaton. Farr’s conceit updates the action some 170 years from provincial Russia under the tsars to the presidential palace of a former Soviet republic, post-glasnost. Instead of Gogol’s newly adored St. Petersburg nobody, Khlestakov, we now have in Sheen’s eternally grinning Gammon a bush-league South London real estate agent who can’t believe his luck when an entire Eastern European elite is suddenly indulging his every whim.
Their reasoning: They have mistakenly assumed Gammon to be the visiting U.N. official who has come to report on a land in chaos after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Though the Minister for Justice (David Ryall) speaks boomingly of “an emerging democracy,” the play inhabits a country rife with toadyism and corruption (the utilities have all been sold off to relatives of the head of state) and a rigged political process. A place inclined toward anything, in fact, to get the corpulent president (Kenneth Cranham in comically snarling form) his wished-for dinner date with “George and Laura” (yes, them).
Much to Gammon’s delight, the hosts descend on his room at the Marriott at the precise moment his credit at the front desk is running out. (On this evidence, Gammon’s treatment of hotel staff evidently rivals Russell Crowe’s.) With Gammon’s slovenly assistant Sammy (Nicolas Tennant) deriding “a country so miserable even the rats are leaving,” these two ordinary Englishman are ripe for the appreciation suddenly lavished upon them by craven higher-ups. These include the president’s painfully slim glamour-puss wife (Geraldine James) and her lustful sour-faced teen daughter (Daisy Haggard, who, like James, seems uneasy in her part).
Farr does well by the physical antics that ensue, not least a reception committee at designer Ti Green’s gilt-flecked palace that moves in an instant from enthusiastic jiving to literal subservience in a delicious sight gag. And though Farr’s own script contains long, arid passages, he has fun with the mounting absurdity of Gammon’s claims (he brags of having done “Big Brother” with Harold Pinter) before the malapropisms begin to sound awfully second-hand — “tsunami” gets confused with “satsuma,” and so on.
Gogol’s play has enough of an innate sting not to need Farr’s attempts at thematic aggrandizement. A subplot involving the torture of an (unseen) female investigative journalist pays diminishing returns, though you have to admire actress Elizabeth Bell, playing the stern Minister of Finance, for plowing ahead regardless. And though Mark Henderson’s lighting design abets a scenic coup in which the walls dissolve to show the country’s dispossessed angrily clamoring outside the windows, the implicit hectoring sits uneasily alongside farce.
Luckily, Sheen is both likable and versatile enough to override those moments that stop the production stone cold. Suggesting a nebbishy modern-day kin to his terrifying Caligula, Sheen seems to visibly inflate with pride at the prospect of an entire house full of swells at his service. While one might have imagined the part more immediately suited to a natural vulgarian (Rowan Atkinson, say), Sheen here adds comic finesse to his apparently ceaseless repertoire — and for what it’s worth, manages a mean pratfall, too.
Whether bewildered or bullying (“You want to take it outside?” he asks the president in a pugilistic spasm), Sheen makes a strenuous occasion seem fleet of foot. As for his estate agent credentials, there’s hardly a play Sheen couldn’t sell, however well or badly it is built.