The Government Inspector The Almeida, Islington
Jonathan Kent's staging of The Government Inspector begins in the high- pitched way it means to go on. Imagine World War II kicking off with the saturation bombing of Dresden and you'll get some sense of a production that goes for broke virtually from the outset and quickly ends up a frantic bankrupt.

Focussing on a fantasist who is flung on to a bed of kopek-sprouting clover by panic-stricken self-deceivers, Gogol's brilliant comedy shows how the corrupt officials of a sleazy Russian Hicksville mistake a wastrel, bumptious clerk for the dreaded inspector from St Petersburg. Gogol gleefully communicates the bad-drain smell of a world of back handers, a world that grows increasingly surreal as the clerk, Khlestakov, exhuberantly cashes in on the mistake of the jumpy locals.

In prospect, this production made the mouth water. it was adapted by John Byrne who has planted the proceedings in a 19th century Russo-Scotland - The Slab Boys meet The Slav Boys. References to "Smoakies" provosts and fish suppers at the Gypsy Tea room bump bottoms with kopeks, bass chorales and the kind of skewwhiff grotesque-soul-of-Russia set that can make the Provost's grim house split open to reveal the damp green cave of Khlestakov's no-star hotel room.

As an object lesson in how to put the maximum effort into deriving the minimum genuine comedy from this piece, the production exerts a certain weird fascination. Talented actors get mangled in the terrible misconception of it all. Tom Hollander, as Khlestakov, has been encouraged to turn the foppish wastrel clerk into a pink-spatted, bulgy eyed baby, a monster of moment-by-moment despotic whims. A precocious Infant Phenomenon who should be sentenced to life imprisonment in a high chair, this Khlestakov seems to have no centre of self, only a depraved dressing up box of preening man-of-the-world "turns" and what you might call a default mode to which he occasionally lapses as a self pitying `ickle boy.

Hollander puts on a bravura display that makes Rik Mayall look like the last word in bashful restraint. But, as with Ian McDiarmid's shady, self righteousus Provost, who rarely goes lower than operatic apoplexy, there's no room for development or a true comic sense of how this peculiar situation changes people. Instead of a gradually building crescendo to the scene where Khlestakov gets higher and higher on drink and bombast, you get oddball and manic from the word go. Quite aside from the fact that the Provost's wife and daughter would have to be certifiable to fancy this clockwork creep, the web of compromised relationships in the town, before the mistake is made, is never properly fleshed out, as, say, it was in the wonderfully funny Dubbeljoint production. Set in a 19th century Ireland, still under British rule, it captured the tension of men of divided loyalties for whom Partition would be a decidedly mixed blessing.

By comparison, this Government Inspector is mirthless, socially textureless and a waste of the considerable abilities of everyone concerned.