The Overcoat, Barbican, London

Is it a mime? Is it a ballet? No, it's a coat!
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The Independent Culture

When does a ballet become a mime show? When it involves actors not dancers? And when does a silent play become dance? When music is the driving force? In Britain it was the genius of Matthew Bourne that taught audiences not to fuss over such distinctions, most conclusively in his visceral Play Without Words, recently revived by the National. Across the Atlantic the same boundary fences are being demolished by the Canadian directors Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling, and the latest of their hybrid productions arrived in London courtesy of BITE and the International Mime Festival.

A tragi-comedy based on two short stories by Gogol, The Overcoat hitches the acting techniques of the silent screen to stylised movement and the dynamising force of Shostakovich's music. You might call it a ballet if the cast had better legs. Yet it has little of ballet's abstraction and still less of its finesse. What it does have is lashings of vigour and the big-hearted clout of a musical. In its first few minutes, though, it looks more like a film, as a stream of projected credits rolls down a transparent scrim covering the opening scene. This turns out to be one of many cinematic references that include gags borrowed from Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel, and themes from Chaplin's Modern Times.

The story concerns a shy and lonely man who is bullied at work by his fellow draughtsmen and harassed at home by his lascivious landlady. His prospects dramatically improve when he decides to blow his savings on a spectacular new overcoat. Suddenly his boss gives him a rise, his colleagues respect him and the secretaries at work find him irresistible. Alas, the success goes to his head, leaving him robbed, coatless, and eventually insane - harsh comeuppance for what is after all only a mild display of hubris. The final smiling image of him being laced into a strait jacket delivers a savage blow to what had begun as bittersweet comedy.

The cast is blessed with a very appealing anti-hero. Lanky and wispy-haired, with an air of innate refinement despite his impoverished clothes, Peter Anderson plays Akaky as a St Petersburg Don Quixote, a man who wills nobody any harm despite the wrongs they do him. His gaunt face carries much of the narrative freight, conveying fear and timidity to desire and rapture in quick succession while his gawky body trails a split second behind. One of the most memorable scenes is his first encounter with the finished coat when he approaches it like a shy lover, eventually summoning the nerve to sweep it into his arms in a jubilant waltz, made climactic by Shostakovich's music.

Ken MacDonald's set design is the other star of the show: a massive wall of dirty windows resembling the factory in Modern Times. This serves as indoors, outdoors, office, home and hospital, with only the simplest tweakings of additional props, which cleverly twirl into position like dancers. A cafe table spins to centre stage just as the man wants to sit at it. An iron framed bed, a tailor's dummy, likewise waltz into view on cue, propelled by curious figures in white skull caps. Only in the closing moments do we realise that the lunatic asylum has been beckoning all along.

The greatest achievement of the show, though, is the clarity with which the teeming cast of 22 whirls through its complex narrative. No printed synopsis is provided, and none is ever required. Big set pieces are deftly woven into the flow, notably a clever street scene with shuffling lines of tram commuters strap-hanging from closed umbrellas. Another memorable scene is at the tailor's, where an entire workshop of bare-chested machinists whip up a terrific climax riding their treadle Singers like racehorses heading for the finish, stitching a little of their sweaty machismo into Akaky's coat along the way.

All the best moments in The Overcoat hinge on boldly repeated dance motifs which channel the performers' energy, focus the stage, and latch most happily onto the hand-holds offered by all that romping Shostakovich (much of it composed for ballet). If this is what Panych and Gorling can do with a bunch of straight actors, I'd be fascinated to see what they could come up with for performers trained in dance.