The Overcoat describes itself as “this modest but warm hearted story”, and in many ways this is an accurate description. This performance is nothing if not modest: economically transforming the unadorned main house at the Pleasance from a hospital to a school to a park to a dingy bedsit to the office of a mysterious, metamorphosing bank with the aid of four metal chairs and tables, a door and one or two other props. These slick transformations are admirable, and the cast deserve praise for their exuberant and energetic performances. However, the economy of The Overcoat is a blessing and a curse: in some ways, there is not quite enough in it to make an hour and a half of entertainment.
One of the major problems with this piece is the writing. Translated by Nely Keinänen and adapted by Catherine Grosvenor from the original Finnish by Esa Leskinen and Sami Keski-Vähälä, which is in turn adapted from Gogol’s short story, perhaps this is a case of too many cooks. Despite the panache with which it is delivered, the writing feels patched together like the eponymous overcoat, and doesn’t quite manage to weave itself into a coherent garment. The unusual decision to set the piece in the context of the global financial crisis felt reductive and unnecessary: Gogol’s original became a hook to on which to hang a political hobbyhorse.
Character construction became slave to the narrative, and most of the characters we encounter during The Overcoat were little more than caricatures – flat and two dimensional. Ryhmäteatteri theatre company seems to have missed the fact that comedy must always have its root in reality: cliché and silliness are not enough. Keith (Tom Freeman), one of the bank clerks, seems to exist merely to don absurd wigs and perform period dance routines. However, there are a few exceptions: Aggy (Karen Fishwick) and Maggy (Sarah McCardie), twin Scots bank tellers raised titters, if not guffaws. Billy Mack also gives a startlingly subtle performance in a sea of caricature as Akaky McAkay, whom the story of The Overcoat follows.
While there are issues with the writing and construction of the piece, the cast certainly deserve praise. Without exception, they are a strong, slick ensemble with an intuitive grasp of each others’ physical and performative strengths. They are boundlessly energetic, and segue seamlessly from character to character. One wonders what they might be like as an ensemble given a better script to play with.
There are also several wonderful and inventive moments of performance: the birth of Akaky, fully grown and already receding is slick and hilarious, and watching him eating raw potatoes alone is his bedsit is by turns bleak and amusing. Director Aleksis Meaney shines at these moments. One of the finest bits of staging occurs at the very end of the piece; an economically created reflection on Akaky’s life after his death. Here, lighting is neatly sombre, the cast dispense with their repertoire of ridiculous and distracting wigs, and the emotion and storytelling are allowed to shine through.
There are too few moments like this in The Overcoat, for it is a piece of storytelling and it is at its best when it purely inhabits the story. Extraneous apparatus of wigs, 70s dance routines, Christmas hats and disco lights are both distracting and irritating. When Aleksis Meaney dispenses with these and focuses on the story, moments of delicious pathos and emotional reality bubble to the surface. Without these, The Overcoat would become Carry On Banking, but fewer puns and less hilarity.
The Overcoat is playing at the Pleasance Theatre until 28 April. For more information and tickets, see the Pleasance Theatre website.