The Overcoat

Bank clerk Akaky McAkay has lived a low-key life. Since his birth during Elizabeth II’s coronation, his greatest joy has been to re-type loan applications and read Russian literature in bed. But the world is changing, even for the quiet man in the corner. When new management threatens his livelihood, he must pull out all the stops if he is to afford the Armani coat he believes will transform his fortunes. But will it? And at what cost to him?

The multicultural history of this production is testament to the durability of the short story by Gogol on which it is based – and fables in general – when in the right hands. A hit in Finland in 2009, it was translated for a Scottish audience and had a successful run at the 2011 Edinburgh Festival. It is now playing in London as part of the opening salvo of the Pleasance’s From-Start-to-Finnish theatrical exchange programme.

Writers Esa Leskinen and Sami Keski-Vähälä have stripped the story of its nineteenth-century Russian setting and cleverly used the diamond-like clarity of its central premise – that of a man caught up in and crushed by the greed of others – to reflect the modern world. So we watch as typewriters give way to word processors, then computers and the Internet; hard work is replaced by hard-sell; and markets boom and bust their way to the banking crisis of 2008.

Catherine Grosvenor’s adaptation continues this process, swapping Finnish names and places with Edinburgh streets and sparky jokes about the Scottish temperament. But nothing is lost in translation in a production which is so enjoyably aware of its provisional nature. Director Aleksis Meaney raids the dressing up box and borrows chart hits from years gone by to present us with an intelligently silly montage of the past half-century. A succession of ill-fitting wigs, exaggerated fashions and huge coils of computer cable are reminders that nothing is permanent or reliable. Fads are discarded as easily as props and dumped in the wings.

This sense of fun carries through to the colourful parade of characters that surround the tongue-tied McAkay. Fable has little scope for inflection or subtlety. It prefers archetypes, which is what we get here – from the batty old women who work in the bank at the start (a Puritan who sees Satan in a keyboard and a die-hard Marxist who sprays herself with trade unionism) to the dippy student temps who replace them. These knockabout stereotypes sugar the pill, smuggling in serious points while keeping the finger-wagging to a minimum.

The ensemble cast are uniformly excellent, bouncing off each other with a comedic adeptness that keeps the energy level high and proceedings moving along at a rollicking pace. An uncluttered set allows them to perform at full throttle, filling the stage with life and sound as they imitate pigeons and dance (gleefully) to ‘Staying Alive’. This visual fluidity is intensified by the production’s inventive use of a small number of props, which sees one scene melt seamlessly into another.

Amid the hullabaloo, it would be easy for the hapless and largely silent McAkay to slip into the background for the audience as well as in the story. But it is no surprise that Billy Mack won the Best Actor award at last year’s Fringe for his generously understated performance here. Shuffling shabbily around the stage at the start and, later, swamped in Armani, he has the bewildered expressiveness of a silent movie actor and gives the show heart and sadness as well as laughter.

The production is occasionally ragged around the edges, with some sequences over-egged or too long, and its mournful ending jars in tone with what has gone before. But, ultimately, it has charm in bucket loads and offers an imaginative and genuinely funny take on an old story, successfully translated into the language of the world we live in today.

First published by Exeunt magazine