Review: The Overcoat (Omnibus Theatre, Clapham)

Nikolai Gogol’s short story is transformed into a surreal theatrical experience

The cast of The Overcoat
The cast of The Overcoat
© Scandal and Gallows

Inspired by a Gogol short story and billed as "a modern fairytale about a woman who never asked for much in life, and didn’t even get that", this is a remarkably satisfying 60 minutes of theatre.

George Johnston’s punchy, witty script is peppered with anachronisms, such as references to mobile phones and email, but the overall feel of John King’s quirky, caffeinated staging is of being pleasurably trapped in a Kafka-esque nightmare, if that doesn’t sound like too much of an oxymoron.

The basic story is simple enough: downtrodden St Petersburg office clerk Akakiy Akakievitchna (whose name, none too subtly, apparently means ‘turd under the shoe’) lives for her meagre job but is bullied and ridiculed by her colleagues. She then gains gravitas and admiration with the acquisition of a fine new overcoat, only to have it snatched away again when said coat is forcibly stolen from her in a street mugging. The overcoat is a metaphor for self respect and social standing, and the disdain with which Akakiy (played with a heart-catching openness and simplicity by Marta Vella) is treated when she is no longer in possession of it, is painful to watch. All of the other characters are depicted as grotesques, some sympathetic, most decidedly not, but all combining to give a very clear picture of a timeless city lacking in compassion and where social injustice is rife.

If that sounds a bit heavy and worthy, it is in fact hugely entertaining, leavened by off-the-wall humour and a couple of agreeably bizarre musical sequences. King’s production is full of wonderfully inventive touches, such as one actor sitting atop another in a long coat to simulate an intimidating, impossibly tall local dignitary who looks like something out of a Chagall painting, or minor characters being suggested by a hat atop a mannequin, or the large wardrobe that serves as coffin, taxi cab and outsize percussion instrument. It’s all achieved with simplicity and flair, atmospherically lit by Johannes Ruckstuhl, who has also provided an unsettling yet enchanting sound score throughout.

The acting is impressive: in addition to the winning Vella, Guy Clark and Elizabeth Schenk skilfully play a dizzying array of contrasting characters between them. Or rather it would be dizzying if both performers weren’t so remarkably specific and disciplined in their choices. Despite the lightning quick changes of costumes, accents and physical characteristics, there is a clarity and precision to the performances that ensure that the audience never gets confused. It’s a masterclass in theatrical storytelling.

The ending matches much of what we’ve seen before in that it is more than a little strange but also hugely gratifying. This packs a lot of good stuff into an hour: it’s often great fun but it also has a heart of real rage, plus a hint of sweetness. Definitely worth a trip to Clapham Common.

The Overcoat runs at Clapham Omnibus until 18 January.