Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat is a lauded, celebrated short story at a time of impoverished lower ranks and untouchable upper echelons of society. In the seminal tale, meek civil servant Akaky Akakievich puts himself through poverty in an attempt to procure an overcoat that eventually exalts him in the workplace and in society. It sounds a farfetched and exaggerated story. Le Mot Juste theatre company’s stage reinterpretation – one in a long line – unfortunately fell short of the captivating storytelling necessary to turn the titular overcoat into a symbol of greatness and obsession.

Staged at Camden People’s Theatre, the three-member cast and a guitarist all put in fine performances. Jon Levin as mediocre and ineffectual Akaky Akakievich was a spot-on casting. He is physically awkward, and in every sense connotes being a bottom-of-the-rung player in life. Fellow performers Ben Hadley and Rachel Lincoln switch between ruffian backstreet tailors, senior executives and, at one point, Lincoln also becomes a cat and a lovelorn land-lady. The physical components of the production appear natural and synchronised, while the miming is exact and believable.

In the light of the skilled and effortless choreography, it is a shame that the actual story gets lost in the constant reshuffling of set and scene. The rushed, jarring pace of The Overcoat further removes any investment into the gravitas of the overcoat. Similarly, the physical segments fail to aid to the storytelling or reveal any emotional insight into why the characters behave as they do. Le Mot Juste hurtles through the story in brief segments, leaving it clunky and seemingly incomplete. The rapid pattern of movement section - acting - movement section - acting causes disruption and results in a lack of cohesion.

There is little time to form a relationship with the characters and for the characters to form relationships with each other. Without these relationships impressed upon us, there is little impact on, for example, Akaky’s transformation into an arrogant, higher ranking member of society. He is dismissive and cruel to his landlady – a dutiful admirer who puts herself through degradation to aid in his quest for the garment. This scene doesn’t portray his sudden moral downfall or her heartbreak; we simply don’t know the characters well enough to experience or notice their transformations or traumas.

Some moments in The Overcoat, however, really demonstrate the capabilities of the company, but are too short-lived. A scene where Lincoln is on all fours as a cat being hunted for fur lining is an active song and dance number that conveys the lust of the chase. In another scene, Akaky’s celebrated overcoat is animated through puppetry and is an effective reflection of the growing power of it over Akaky and everyone in its presence. Further employment of these surreal moments would add depth to the production and submerge the audience into the characters’ world.

This adaption of Gogol’s part-fantastical, part-satirical story leaves no doubt of the capabilities, creativity and vision of Le Mot Juste. The Overcoat buckles under the weight of attempting to squeeze too much spoken narrative in beside physical storytelling. We are left with a puzzling story over a piece of clothing rather than a pursuit of greatness and the moral tarnishing resulting from rising ranks in society.

The Overcoat , at CPTStefan Nicolaou reviews The Overcoat at the Camden Fringe.3