THEATRE / The skull beneath the farce: Government Inspector - Tricycle; Dead Funny - Hampstead; Communicating Doors - Stephen Joseph, Scarborough; April in Paris - Ambassadors

IN A WEEK of good new plays by Terry Johnson, John Godber and Alan Ayckbourn, the big mainstream event is Pam Brighton's touring production of The Government Inspector. This marks the arrival of DubbelJoint Productions - a Dublin and Belfast-based successor to Derry's Field Day company. Following the Chekhov adaptations of Thomas Kilroy and Aidan Higgins, it opens another astonishing chapter in the field of Russo-Irish transplantation.

Marie Jones, the show's adapter, advances the action 60 years to the turn of the century, and achieves a text both faithful to Gogol and completely Irish. The tsarist backwater becomes an Ulster outpost of the Protestant ascendency, with Catholic peasants replacing the serfs and Westminster replacing Moscow; while Khlestakov, Gogol's down-and-out prankster (unnamed in this version) becomes the hooray scion of a Cork estate's absentee landlord. It is enough that he speaks in the accent of 'the mainland' to win the grovelling adulation of the mayor and his cattle-rustling, tax-laundering cronies, who go in dread of partition and 'the kind of rabble we'd be ruined by if the British pulled out'.

Armed with that historical supergun, and scabrously brilliant dialogue suggesting Somerville and Ross done over by Brendan Behan, the company plays with a detailed farcical energy the like of which I have not seen since Jean Meyer at the Comedie-Francaise. 'What a place to hold a meeting]' complains the first conspirator arriving at an illicit abattoir, and the rest of the plotting scene - sizzlingly led by Mark Lambert as the mayor - is choreographed into a game of hide-and-seek among the swaying carcasses. Gogol's Osip reappears as a smarmy gentleman's gentleman (Sylvester McCoy), engaged in ruthlessly precise tit-for-tat pantomime with his starving master (Dan Gordon). The physical comedy starts rude and gets ruder, achieving one poteen-crazed, crotch-nuzzling climax at the mayoral party, and topping it with another in the bribery scene, where Gordon holds court in bed to a queue of palm-greasing worthies while pleasuring the mayor's wife under the sheets.

Then comes a deputation of peasant women (Eileen Pollock and Niamh Linehan) bitterly seeking redress for their husbands' transportation, and the fun shudders to a halt. Momentarily you see the skull under the carnival mask: a bold but apparently suicidal move. Miraculously the farce recovers from this brutal jolt which, in fact, has been cunningly prepared by the presentation of the play's other ladies. As in Gogol, the mayor's wife and daughter (the same splendid two performers) become carnivorously attracted to their visitor; but it gradually dawns on you that they are no longer fools.

When the guest starts making poetic claims, the daughter spots that he is filching chunks of Yeats and Merriman's The Midnight Court. And the two women take their cue from this epic, in which Irish womanhood wreaks vengeance on the sexually backsliding Irish male. To the mayor's neglected wife, the visitor is simply a delicious piece of flesh. To the daughter, he is also the heir to an estate, who is trapped by his marriage proposal. The ex-propriator ends up expropriated. You can read this either as an act of political or sexual retribution; either way the new ending tightens as neatly as a hangman's knot. It departs from Gogol; but I have never understood why Khlestakov should have been allowed to escape.

Richard (David Haig), the cheating obstetrician in Terry Johnson's Dead Funny, would also be a candidate for the Merriman treatment. For no apparent reason he has told his 40-year-old wife, Eleanor, that he no longer wants to be touched. While she writhes in frustrated maternity, he blithely performs hysterectomies and pursues his obsessive hobby as chairman of the Comics Society. The piece is framed between the deaths of Benny Hill and Frankie Howerd, and takes the form of a memorial meeting of the society, while furtively illuminating the private lives of its other members: Brian (Niall Buggy), a maiden gentleman from next door, and Nick and Lisa, whose marriage is also falling apart ('We've got dozens of common interests,' Lisa says. 'At least, I have.')

Three kinds of comedy are going on. Least risible is the members' numbing re-enactment of their idols' favourite sketches. Simultaneously, from Brian's repeated knack of blundering in at the wrong moment to the closing custard-pie debacle, you see painful experience being overrun by low farce. Finally, the smouldering character of Eleanor (Zoe Wanamaker), sitting stone-faced through the dreadful sketch routines, develops through misery and anger into a devastating comedian. 'You don't,' she tells Richard, 'look at the mantlepiece when you're sitting on it.'

Directing a stunning cast, Johnson puts comedy on trial in this piece as no one has done since Peter Barnes's Laughter: showing that it arises from pain, and that Fun Corner is nowhere to go for a giggle. All that aside, look out for the coda between Wanamaker and Buggy relaxing on a sofa after the sex wars, two lonely people pleased to be in each other's company and making the rest of us quite glad to belong to the human race.

Communicating Doors, Alan Ayckbourn's 46th play, is his first thriller: a logical step, given the melodramatic values that have lately invaded his comedies. In telling the story of Poopay, a dominatrix who learns to stand on her own feet, he is more engaged in showing how life can be improved than in getting laughs out of its inevitable defeats. Poopay (Adie Allen) arrives for a hotel booking in her S & M kit, only to find that the client is a mortally ill old crook who wants her to witness his confession. The date is 2014: but when she takes flight from her client's homicidal partner, she arrives in an identical hotel room in the year 1994.

Thanks to the magic doors, Poopay's adventures go back to 1974, involving a plot to rewrite the past by saving the lives of the client's two supposedly murdered wives. Compared with Ayckbourn's vision of the future in Henceforward, the background of this piece is sketchy. So as to change things for the better, the criminal and social detail is left inexplicit; while the hotel room, which one might expect to change, remains unaltered over 40 years. The piece, however, does exert a thrilling narrative grip, with moments of stark horror and many excellent time jokes. With Liz Crowther and Sara Markland as the wives, and Nick Stringer, hair coming and going with the years, as the hotel detective, Ayckbourn's production is extremely well cast; while Poopay, at the end of her character-forming adventures, is barely recognisable as the callow hooker of the opening scene.

The third author-directed production, John Godber's April in Paris, brings yet another plot driven by women. Al and Bet, a haplessly bickering Leeds couple, would have gone round in circles of TV and DIY until doomsday but for winning a trip to Paris. Bet wins it, and Bet propels her beer-soaking stay-at-home spouse across the Channel until, surrounded by a wrap-round Renoir set, he finally awakens to the outside world. Godber, as usual, is writing about comic stereotypes. But there is a world of difference between the way he exploited them in On the Piste and the generous and hopeful treatment they get here. You expect them to be full of beans. Maria Friedman and Gary Olsen also give them sensitivity and respect.

'Government Inspector', Tricycle, 071-328 1000. 'Dead Funny', Hampstead, 071-722 9301. 'Communicating Doors', Stephen Joseph, Scarborough, 0723 370541. 'April in Paris', Ambassadors, 071-836 6111.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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