See U Next Tuesday, Albery Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

French musicals get roughly the same warmth of welcome as rabies in the UK, but we've always been partial to a touch of that country's farce. This latest offering is a stage version of the popular movie Le Diner de Cons, a screwball comedy by Francis Veber which I'm afraid to say made me titter only once. Not a great strike rate in a farce. That the laughter come louder and more often in Robin Lefevre's enjoyable theatre production of See U Next Tuesday (the Ronald Harwood adaptation) is thanks, for the most part, to the endearingly hapless presence of Ardal O'Hanlon, here playing the classic well-intentioned guest whose bungling attempts at helpfulness reduce everything to ghastly disarray.

His character, Francois Pignon, is a dopey tax inspector and he has been earmarked to become the next butt of a private joke played by a clique of snotty-nosed Parisians. These yuppies get their kicks from competing with each other to see who can find the stupidest person to bring, on flatteringly false pretences, to a humiliating weekly dinner. Believing that Francois could win the Nobel Prize for nincompoopery, Pierre Brouchant (Nigel Havers) a rich, arrogant and publisher, is about to take him to one of these sneering soirées. But a slipped disc leaves him unable to go - and at the tender mercies of the prize chump.

Bent on helping Pierre whose wife has just left him, Francois manages to do everything wrong - from mistaking his spouse for his mistress and thereby giving the game away to roping in Cheval, a beady-eyed colleague from the tax inspectorate (well played by Geoffrey Hutchings).

Though the setting is still Paris (because it would be hard to imagine such a perverted, dolt-baiting dining club in England), O'Hanlon's casting nonetheless draws on the stereotype of the thick Irish Mick. But wedged into his tight-fitting suit, with the tense shoulders of someone permanently awaiting an interview, and wearing an expression of intensely earnest goodwill, this delightful performer radiates, from the start, the struggling kindness and fellow-feeling that make him superior to his mockers. The piece could have been a cynical exercise but thanks to O'Hanlon, See You Next Week does not come across as wanting to have its gateau and eat it.