Notebook - Rosie Millard

Who personifies the worst excesses of modern life? A celeb? A snapper? A hack?

Who you gonna call? The UN, naturally. The director David Farr has updated The Government Inspector, Nikolai Gogol's classic 19th-century Russian comedy, for the National Theatre as The UN Inspector.

Frankly, if you are looking for modernisation, where better to plonk this farce of braggadocio, bureaucracy and corruption than squarely in the lap of the UN? Before the oil-for-food row, before the shadows fell over the integrity of the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, and his son, Kojo, before Rwanda, the notion of targeting the pale blue flag of the UN would have been unlikely. Now, however, when Kenneth Cranham, playing the president of a hapless former Soviet republic (Turkmenistan? Kazakhstan?), staggers on to the stage groaning that he has had a nightmare about a blue monster, the audience laughs. The UN is ripe for satire - even by the Olivier, which holds up the highly educated end of culture.

Having been warned that the UN's inspector is on his way, the president and various ministers frantically charge around in anticipation of his arrival. They hope their lack of electricity and education and their embezzlement of huge IMF grants will go unnoticed, and tart up dismal corners of the state about which they feel nervous. Plonking Ikea sofas into grim prison cells is one of their wheezes. But Gogol's joke is that the inspector is confused with an ordinary Joe who happens to be in the right place at the right time. The impostor is dodgy. In the original, he is Khlestakov, an impoverished scoundrel from St Petersburg, but that's not going to work with an updated script. The Khlestakov figure here is a Brit, but which sort? Who might best personify the worst excesses of modern-day living? A celeb? A snapper? Heavens above, a hack? No.

Farr has gone one better. Martin Gammon, the man he draws as his modern-day nightmare, is "the worst estate agent in the world", out to make a fast buck at the expense of "emerging countries". Ha ha. We property-crazed Londoners found that pretty funny, the night I saw the show. It's an easy joke, but in good farce the jokes must swim past as if on oiled castors. However, the real gag is in the detail. It's revealed that Remmington Gammon works in the Clapham branch of Foxtons, at which point hysterically knowing laughter cascaded within the auditorium.

Good old Foxtons. Feared by its competitors (who have in the past accused the firm of dastardly acts such as tearing down signboards), fervent symbol of the British property boom and crash (sometimes both at the same time), and famous for its Mini Coopers, its pinstriped suits and its Friday-night team meetings (wherein Estate Agents of the Week are slapped on the back and sent off to Paris), the brainchild of Jon Hunt (personal fortune: £280m) is a cultural reference de nos jours if ever there was one. Cruising on to the stage of the National Theatre is just the latest acknowledgment of the power of the brand.

So here we are with a farce originally written in 1836, elegantly transformed into a vehicle for mocking the UN and wringing hands at the parlous state of the former Soviet Union, as well as our own bricks-and-mortar fanaticism. Is it an accident that the actor who plays Gammon, Michael Sheen, is best known for his portrayal (in Stephen Frears's The Deal) of Tony Blair, whom he so uncannily resembles?

Rosie Millard was previously Arts Editor for the NS and a Theatre Critic. She was the Arts Correspondent for BBC News for 10 years and is now a broadsheet columnist. She lives in London with heaps of small children, which may partially explain her love of going to the theatre.

This article first appeared in the 20 June 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Latin America rises up