The Overcoat: Gogol’s story adapted for the theatre by Le Mot Juste

Review by Carmel Shortall

Akaky Akakievitch is unfeasibly proud of his meaningless title of Titular Councillor and the work he does copying “3,400 words a day average” as a government Clerk of the 9th Grade – basically the bottom of the heap – in 19th century St Petersburg. His colleagues gather together to take snuff and mock him for trailing shit in from the street and treading it into the carpet, but most of all, for his shabby overcoat.

“Did you see his overcoat?” “No.” “That’s because it’s so thin it’s invisible!”

He puts on this overcoat to go home and struggles through the cold of a St Petersburg winter to his attic. Only his landlady appears to care for him, advising him to get the coat mended, as she ladles out imaginary soup. But the tailor won’t mend Akakay’s overcoat: “this is a wretched garment and I wouldn’t piss on it if was on fire.”

It will take a minimum of 80 roubles to buy a new one and Akaky tries extra hard to please at work, bouncing quite literally up and down on the stage and rushing around on all fours like a dog when his copying is noticed by the Tsarina. But the new overcoat is still out of reach until his landlady makes a sacrifice.

Akaky has his head turned by his new overcoat and the status it confers at work – now he too is attending parties and making jokes with the gossiping snuff-takers but disaster strikes the overcoat and Akaky learns who his true friends are.

A mixture of music, song, dance, mime, straight drama and physical theatre, this adaptation of The Overcoat develops into a rich and living theatrical experience. All these aspects come together when Akaky cannot afford mink for his new coat’s collar and he and the tailor take to the streets to hunt a cat for that special furry finishing touch. The three cast sing, dance, cavort and eventually have the tail off a very surprised Rachel Lincoln as the cat. Perhaps Akaky himself, Jon Levin, should play the cat, hunted down by the tailor (Ben Hadley) and his wife.   

Aside from Jon Levin, playing Akaky, the other two actors perform a multitude of parts seamlessly – their very inter-changeability adding to the sense of a hostile world pressing in on Akaky and his loyal landlady.       

Those familiar with Gogol’s tale will detect a few changes but the spirit of the original is here. The emphasis on physical theatre and developing a variety of performance languages point to the fact that all concerned – the company, Le Mot Juste (the right word) and the cast are either graduates or current students of the Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Devised by the company and directed by Sohie Horton to make maximum use of the cast and a minimum of props, this production gives full rein to the techniques championed by the Ecole.  

Stimulating, challenging but ultimately rewarding, this hour-long version of The Overcoat is well worth a visit.  Make the trip to the friendly and laid back Camden People’s Theatre before the end of this year’s Fringe. The show runs every night until Sunday 26th August at 7.30pm. Tickets are £10, concs, £8. 

If you would like to help fund the Overcoat Summer 2012 Tour or make a donation to Le Mot Juste Theatre, visit them online at: www.lemotjustetheatre.com/support-us

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