Government Inspector, Young Vic, London

An inspector enthrals in a comic classic
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Richard Jones rides high in the love-'em-or-loathe-'em category of theatre director.

I thought his bafflingly avant-garde Young Vic production of Annie Get Your Gun lurched beyond parody in its badness. But now, at the same venue, Jones has masterminded this gloriously grotesque and brilliantly funny revival of Gogol's comic masterpiece, The Government Inspector. The garishly outre design (by Miriam Buether) deposits the play in a Russia that looks semi-1970s, a decade that taste forgot particularly so here. The phantasmagoric side of the proceedings is drolly signalled from the outset as in dripping horror-movie script, an illuminated sign reading "Incognito" slithers across the set, teasing and eluding the shattered-looking provincial Mayor (wonderful Julian Barratt).

The denizens of this backwater have been warned that a government inspector is about to slip anonymously into their corrupt midst. By a stroke of genius, Gogol has them mistake for this worthy a young impoverished clerk from St Petersburg, Khlestakov, who is holed up in a local inn unable to pay his bills. What follows is like a barking case of surreal symbiosis. It's panic at the possibility of exposure that causes the locals to project a false identity on to this stranger but the latter is himself driven by fear of being recognised as one of life's failure and so, when he twigs to their exploitable mistake, he treats the absurd respect he is accorded as long-overdue recognition of his true worth.

All nasal, glottal-stopping, Julian Barratt exudes a seedy, calculating smallness of soul that would make David Brent look Bishop Desmond Tutu as he flashes wary, nudging beams of experimental complicity at Kyle Soller's stunning Khlestakov. With his mop of red curls and Dickensian-clerk outline, Soller looks as The Death of Chatterton might, as redrawn by Phiz. His drunken flights of folie de grandeur at the central party escalate in wild anarchic energy, drawing out his inner megalomaniac as he ascends the mantelpiece to the sound of totalitarian armies on the march. But David Harrower's pungently slangy translation gives him quieter rum moments too as when he not only claims acquaintance with Pushkin but condescends – "a real character, but, you know, small doses." Everything is taken to excess here (the Mayor's wife, a lovely Doon Mackichan sports a turquoise and gold creation that would make a Christmas tree blush), with rats and an interpolated beating up of the real government inspector, but it all feels true to the play and one can't get enough of it.

To 9 July (020 7922 2922)