Thursday, 26 March 2009


24/3/09, Lyric Hammersmith.

1hr 40mins, no interval. Not exactly an adaptation of, more a variation on the Gogol short story of the same name by a company called Gecko. I'd assumed they were Eastern European (everything about them, subject matter, style, appearance suggested as much) but they turn out to be British, albeit founded by and starring an Israeli, Amit Lahav, and with members from across Europe; they have a residency at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich. Parts of the show come with words, often grotesquely amplified, in a variety of languages (Italian, French, Cantonese): for me the only jarring element in this was the female lead, a bird-like little beauty called Natalia. She was played almost completely silently by an English actress, Natalie Ayton; but when she did speak ("Oh sorry!") she did so in bell-like English tones... and the mittel-European spell was briefly broken.

What did mime companies do before amplification? And modern lighting? This was a fine cast who worked hard, had talent and trained with the best, including Le Coq and Lindsay Kemp. But much of the show's impact derived from the son et lumiere.

In the original story, a lowly clerk saves up, buys himself a smart overcoat, briefly enjoys enhanced status as a result, but then is destroyed when the coat is stolen. In this version a man (Lahav) dreams of marrying the girl at work, some ghastly office where the prize for employee of the month is apparently a smart camel overcoat with opulent fur collar, seen hanging to start with at one side of the proscenium. At one stage it seems he's got both the girl and the coat, but alas, it's a dream. In reality the coat has gone to another guy and our hero is summoned to see the boss (a godlike figure high on a ledge at the side of the stage) who casts him out, stripping him of the coat in the process.

He dies naked and alone in the little room he shares with a two-bar electric fire, a portrait of his parents (cast members gazing through a frame) and a rapacious Spanish landlady who has earlier seduced him under the influence of flamenco music on the Roberts radio hanging on the end of the bed.

These chaps know their stuff. The cast move brilliantly as a crowd, scuttling about the set in a body, yet each one an individual. They battle the wind, grouping and regrouping. At one point the hero is beseiged by birds in the gale: sheets of white paper, bunched and fluttered by the rest of the cast. The hero's room is assembled from half a dozen props: a bed (which at one point swallows him up), the fire, a door, a picture frame, all held in place by the cast. The "office" is a place of school desks each equipped with coloured lamps, red, green and blue-white, with a lamp-cum-hatstand, at which the cast perform mindlessly repetitive tasks, scuttling with documents from one desk to another or to grilles that open in the back wall (Natalia's job is to stamp the documents with rubber stamps; our hero's is to trim them with a guillotine) while the boss hectors them through a loudspeaker in a parody of French.

We loved the set: a black back wall with doors and shutters that opened and shut: design by Ti Green, who presumably also commissioned the early 20th century costumes in which overcoats of various lengths and degrees of tackiness inevitably featured. And a special mention for the lighting by James Farncombe and the music by percussionist Dave Price, who also performs in the cast. Musical high points included a tune tapped out on a tiny xylophone with metal thimbles on his finger tips from high up at the side of the proscenium.

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