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
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'