Gogol’s short story of The Overcoat, about a hard-working but overlooked clerk whose fortunes change for the better – and then, spectacularly and fatally, for the worse – on the acquisition of an expensive new overcoat, receives an imaginatively modern reworking by Finnish writer Sami Keski-Vahala.
Akaky McKaky’s clerical life here spans the past forty years of banking, from an institution’s strict and ethically upright early years, through Thatcherite excess and deregulation, into the modern era where banks’ bad decisions can bring down corporations and even countries.
Initially a mute character who is belittled and teased by all around him, Billy Mack nevertheless infuses Akaky with a sense of warmth and determination, providing much for his energetic castmates, each taking on a multitude of new characters, to work against.
As fashions and technologies change – each chapter in the bank’s history being introduced via costume changes, typewriters being replaced by VDUs and some of each era’s cheesiest dance moves – Akaky works hard and studiously, until his smelly old overcoat gets ripped and he is enticed to save up for an £8,000 Armani replacement.
And it’s once Akaky starts interacting more verbally and physically with the other characters that Billy Mack’s portrayal really takes flight. In his hands, Akaky is a gentle, good man who gets entranced, enticed into a world in which he will never belong – and which ultimately rejects him when he actually needs it.
My last piece of theatre in my intensive weekend at the 2011 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, The Overcoat was easily the best thing I saw. It was a privilege, too, to see Mack collect his award for Best Actor at the Stage Awards for Acting Excellence on Sunday evening. I played no part in the judging process, but if the whole cast of The Overcoat couldn’t manage a shortlist nomination in the Best Ensemble category, that can only demonstrate how impressive those who did get nominated must have been.