This one will run and run

The Nose; Nottingham Playhouse
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"Fancy a nose job?" the title character asks the audience in Alistair Beaton's witty, dextrous new stage adaptation of Gogol's surreal short story. From the way it's been butting backsides, it's fairly clear that it isn't rhinoplasty the proboscis has in mind.

Gogol's piece presents a flatly fantastical scenario in which, for no explicable reason, Kovalyov, collegiate assessor, social climber and ladies' man, wakes up one morning to find that his nose has disappeared. Better than metamorphosing into a cockroach, perhaps, but still a distinct liability, especially when your nose develops an alternative social life of its own.

The assessor's predicament is brought home in all its comic, nightmare preposterousness when, at the end of the first half, the stuffy, status- obsessed Kovalyov (a fine Robert Bathurst) comes profile to profile with his swaggering, spiv-voiced Nose (Phelim McDermott). Decked out in an identical uniform, this creature looks like some parodic, parvenu twin - except that it's now in a position to turn its nose up at its former owner, having just been promoted several ranks above him.

Martin Duncan's striking, expertly acted production creates an atmosphere where the playful and the macabre form an arresting mix with the satiric and the sulphurous. It's full of sly jokes, like the fact that the jabbing, ominous music that accompanies Nose's snouty manoeuvrings makes you think of another predatory body part: Jaws. A marvel of imposing flexibility, Tim Hatley's design conjures up, out of the same basic building blocks, the mountainous filing cabinets and dwarfing bureaucracy of a newspaper office, say, and the bridge from which the Nose is tossed by the Barber after it surfaces in his breakfast-roll.

In the age of Lorena Bobbitt, we might be disposed to see this fable as evidence of a castration complex. Openly louche and libidinous and unapologetically common, McDermott's Nose is everything a pompous, hypocritical, tuft-hunting careerist would dread to be associated with. This adaptation elaborates on the significance of the assessor's loss. It shows us Kovalyov, who dons a metal face harness to hide the disfigurement, attaining a sort of humanity through his deficiency, tearfully accepting the love of a girl he's been stringing along for seven years. The moment the Nose is safely back in place, though, he reverts to type. At this point, Bathurst, who has made the character oddly sympathetic as well as absurd, allows you a full unlovely look at the emotional cowardice and callousness of the man. He gives his fiance the brush-off in a nonsensical babble of evasive civil service clichs, snarling out the song "A Little Love, a Little Tenderness" in a defiant, Brecht / Weill style jeer. The effect is chilling.

In the programme to the piece, the Nose gets a cod biography (Trained in St Petersburg, played 3rd Serf in Whoops, I've Dropped my Samovar, etc). Perhaps out of modesty, it doesn't mention its cameo in Hay Fever, nor its innovatory work in certain snuff movies.

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Paul Taylor