The Overcoat, Barbican, London
Thursday 22 January 2004
People are rarely at their best when they are on their best behaviour. You're reminded of that by The Overcoat, a show brought by the Canadian Stage Company to the London International Festival of Mime. It's fluent, accomplished and involving. But though it uses Expressionist movement to communicate a grotesque story based on two stories by Gogol, you may well feel that, by comparison with Theatre de Complicite's vivid ventures into East European fable, this staging minds its manners too much. However wild the proceedings, there's an underlying politeness in the company's approach that inhibits sheer imaginative abandon.
Seamlessly set to the music of Shostakovich, the production unfolds without words and in a variety of physical-theatre styles, ranging from silent movie-acting to bursts of ballet. Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling, who devised and directed the show, propel their cast of 22 through a drama that combines elements of Gogol's The Overcoat and his Diary of a Madman. The plot focuses on a lonely, eccentric draughtsman who is bullied at work by his colleagues and lasciviously pursued at home by hissluttish landlady. His fortunes appear to change when he is measured for a new overcoat to replace his despised rag. But his success goes to his head, leading to robbery and the lunatic asylum.
Peter Anderson is ideal casting as the hero. Lanky and balding, with a gaunt and expressive face, he exudes an ineffable sensitivity of soul and an unassuming refinement of spirit. Against a double-bank of window panes, the production whips up a standard-issue atmosphere of pressurised urban angst. Grasping umbrellas the ensemble become jam-packed strap-hangers on a rush-hour trolley or run flailingly on the spot to indicate their battle against the clock and an icy gale.
The part where music, movement and meaning fuse best is the sequence in the tailor's sweatshop. To a romping orchestral passage, a chorus of muscular men ride their foot-pump sewing machines like jockeys on race-horses and wipe perspiration from their brows with the same synchronised rhythm as their stitching. They seem to be imbuing the garment with the masculinity its prospective owner lacks. And when the coat is finished, it is modelled by a tiny assistant who, buried under it, looks like a headless ghost. The shy hero eventually summons up the nerve to sweep this creature away in a jubilant dance.
Inmates of the asylum surface, pretty unworryingly, throughout. Until the final scene, the production fails to impart a genuinely dangerous and disturbing sense of madness. A production that could benefit from less restraint ends in a gut-wrenchingly ironic image: the deluded would-be dandy proudly sporting a straitjacket.
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