The Overcoat: Old Court House: Theatre Review

Kat Pope May 17, 2013

THe Overcoat

Akaky Akakievitch is born, sees his mother die, and is welcomed into the Ministry all in the first 30 seconds of Le Mot Juste’s adaptation of Gogol’s influential short story.

It’s as if we’re on fast forward to the only crucial aspect of his existence; that of being a government copiest in St Petersburg, a lowly cog in the Russian bureaucratic state of the 1840s. This is his life now; it’s not only what he does, it’s who he is.

The story is deceptively simple. Akaky has a threadbare overcoat which is falling apart in the harsh Russian winter. Tempted by a tailor to buy a new one, he begins to save every kopec and even goes without food. When he’s given an unexpected early bonus at work, he buys the coat, briefly goes up in the world, gets it stolen, and then dies.

Using minimal props (a couple of large window frames on wheels and two folding panels that are transformed into anything else they need), the company tell the story through mime, speech, dance, and a very odd and out-of -place song in the middle about cats.

Ben Hadley plays Akaky with wide-eyed wonder, an innocent trying to get by in a harsh and unforgiving world. He really has no idea he’s having the piss taken out of him by his work colleagues and spectacularly fails to see the sacrifice a friend has made for him, turning on her when his new, more important pals come to call.

Akaky is an accidental social climber thanks to his new coat. Until this new thing appeared in his life, he had no idea that he wanted to crawl up the ladder. He was just about content, if not happy. Now he’s warm but suddenly very worried about his standing in society.

This is a devised piece by Le Mot Juste and there are a couple of strange deviations from Gogol’s plot. The friend’s sacrifice for instance, isn’t in the original story, and in deciding to end with Akaky’s death, they’ve missed out an important piece of Gogol’s jigsaw – how Akaky gets his own back as a ghost.

By doing this the piece feels more like a classic opera story than the surreal and existential story it should be. It lacks something very crucial: a sense of the absurd.

But I’m nit-picking as this is a lovely, energetic staging, with the cast of four taking on many roles, switching with a snap of the fingers. Bryony Thomas’s fractured guitar work swings along with, or punctures the narrative as needed, while Sophie Horton and Tom Bailey are never less than excellent in their portrayals of the supporting characters.

A niggling feeling remains though that the company have missed a trick. In a way it all feels too nice. The bite of the original is somehow missing.

People are still arguing about what Gogol’s miniature masterpiece is actually about. Is it a tale of social in/justice, of urban alienation and isolation, a moralistic fable or simply a love story between a man and his coat? I’m afraid if you go to see this production you won’t be any nearer to figuring out Gogol’s intentions in writing the short story, but you will have an enervating evening watching lively and engaging theatre.

Event: The Overcoat by Le Mot Juste

Where: Old Courtroom, Church Street, Brighton

When: until Sunday May 19

Time: 5.30pm

Cost: £8/£7

Pope Rating: ***