See U Next Tuesday, Albery Theatre, London

Face it, the joke's on you
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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 Dîner 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, François Pignon, is a dopey tax inspector whose hobby is building matchstick models of famous landmarks. 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 François could win the Nobel prize for nincompoopery, Pierre Brouchant (Nigel Havers) a rich, arrogant and philandering publisher, is about to take him to one of these sneering soirées. But a slipped disc leaves him at once unable to go and at the tender mercies of the prize chump, who has arrived at his chic apartment.

The movie begins with a shot of a boomerang that knocks out the idiot who threw it; a forecast of what will happen in a drama where intentions backfire badly. Bent on helping Pierre, whose wife has just left him, François 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).

It's a neat touch that during the interval the flat is denuded of Pierre's undeclared objets d'art and that, lurching to the loo after slurping Château Lafitte that has been doctored with vinegar to taste cheap, Cheval stumbles on the room where these pricey items have been hidden. But the situation doesn't have the rigorous logic that all really good farce requires: after all, Pierre's back isn't so bad that they couldn't have met the snoopy inspector in a restaurant.

Harwood has tweaked and improved the original in several ways. In this version, for example, there's a running gag whereby François keeps almost being told the real reason for the dinner invite - a discovery that leaves him touchingly crestfallen at the end. 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 title is a vulgar acronym, but the joke is significantly not on the supposed idiot.)

The piece could have been a cynical exercise in arousing laughter at François's expense and then redeeming itself by making him its moral centre, but thanks to O'Hanlon, See U Next Tuesday does not come across as a play that seeks to want to have its gateau and eat it.

To 11 Jan 2004 (0870 060 6621)