Described by Nabokov as "Russia's greatest comedy" (no quips about the level of competition, please), the premise is simple - the inept and corrupt Mayor of a small provincial town hears that a Government inspector is on the way, and mistakes a gambling conman, Khlestavkov for said official. Driven half-mad by the idea that he might be hauled to St Petersburg - or worse, Siberia - the Mayor and his equally questionable town 'elders' shower an increasingly ecstatic Khlestakov with money and compliments.
The best scene by far is when the Mayor and Khlestakov first meet - the former terrified by the power he assumes the inspector has; the latter assuming his debts have finally caught up with him. They eye each other suspiciously, are constantly talking at crossed purposes, and both are desperate to keep the other on side. It's awkward, odd, and very, very funny - and Klestakov's slow realisation that he might just be able to play this to his huge advantage is the first suggestion that the man who plays him - Kyle Soller - is going to be very good indeed.
And he really is. His Klestakov is an urbane dandy dressed in St Petersburg's finest (every garment conned out of some poor tailor, you assume), obsessed with fashion and fame and able to talk his way out of the most dire of situations. Think Blackadder's Percy, but with charisma and confidence. Soller's part is very dense, but - just like the gathered townspeople - you hang on every word, and this is combined with a lovely physical performance that director Richard Jones demands of all his actors here.
Barratt's Mayor is in some ways the polar opposite of his visitor - big, coarse, angry and dishevelled - on the other hand he's flying by the seat of his pants just the same, ducking and weaving as well as he can to avoid the inspector discovering, for example, that they never did build that church that the town was given hundreds of roubles for. Unsurprisingly, Barratt is most at home with the more outright comic elements of his part, delivering lines with the wonderful offbeat timing that makes him such a great comedian, but he does trip over a few words too and he could go even further with his breakdown. But in the main this is a pretty excellent first foray into 'straight' theatre - you certainly wouldn't know it.
When I tweeted my quick just-out-of-the-theatre response to this production I called it an "assault on the eyes", and that was a reference to the decision to style the sets and costumes as gaudily as possible - all big 70s prints, purple, sequins, turquoise and copious gold braiding. The Mayor's wife, Anna (the brilliant Doon Makichan having a whale of a time) usually manages to combine all of this into a single, insane, four-foot-wide dress. Quite why the stage and actors have been dressed this way I can't entirely work out, except perhaps from having the effect of making this ragtag bunch of bumbling fools appear even more ridiculous.
Any serious political subtext to Gogol's original is not particularly evident here - the aim is to garner big laughs and, thanks especially to the lead performances, it succeeds, with Soller as the shining star. One to watch, I'd say.