The Overcoat: A Musical review (Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney)

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Things are grim in the Surry Hills home of Belvoir St Theatre.

In the upstairs theatre, a bitterly married couple are waiting for each other to die in an isolated hut in Sweden (The Dance Of Death). Downstairs, a lonely bureaucrat is freezing to death in the depths of a bitterly cold Russian winter.

In The Overcoat, a short story by Nikolai Gogol admirably turned unlikely mini-musical, Nikolai just can’t catch a break. Friendless, penniless and shorn of sartorial security, the snow begins falling as he lies helpless in the street. And then, to belie the rather romantic aesthetics, the entire snow machine collapses on his head.

That, of course, wasn’t supposed to happen, in the last gasp of the performance I reviewed over the weekend, part of the 25A program of indie troupes free-leasing Belvoir’s intimate black box. But the mishap didn’t jar as much as it might. In fact, my date thought it was all part of the show. After 80 pitiless minutes of theatre, the whole building could cave in and it would seem a fitting metaphor.

That is not meant as criticism. In fact, it’s credit to the creators, who have certainly captured that particular Russian brand of inexorable grey from Gogol’s novella. They are siblings, the Costi clan, and rudely talented all: Constantine (who directs), Michael (the book and lyrics writer) and Rosemarie (who’s composed the spare jazz-like score).

Shy, skittish Nikolai (Akaky in the original story, but changed presumably to suggest parallels with the author) might be in the ruling class but his social standing is as threadbare as his winter coat. Which is just fine by him. But a fabulous new garment from a tricky tailor seduces Nikolai with the promise of a fabulous new life. And leads, predictably, to his cruel downfall.

A Marxist fable, perhaps. Though here, the Costi siblings use the story more as a weapon to charm. With its effectively bleak production design by Emma Vine, craftily lit by Alex Berlage, and four fine acting performances, it rattles merrily, miserably along in a series of often funny, occasionally moving vignettes.

Charles Wu, recently upstairs of The Enemy Of The People, plays the protagonist with authentic notes of sorrow, despair but also quiet defiance. Laura Bunting, Kate Cheel and Aaron Tsindos share the minor roles, occasionally indistinguishably, but each crafting at least one memorable foil. Mercifully, the Russian accents are left at the door.

It’s dubbed a musical, though a play with music might be a better categorisation. The score – performed live by piano, double bass and saxophone – is smoky and spiky, adding atmospheric din, propulsive rhythm and recitative vocal passages that demonstrate a mature musicality. If this is their first attempt at something approaching a musical, I’ll be in the front row for the next attempt.

A small show about a small life has outsized ambition. It pulls off a truly original night of theatre.

The Overcoat plays the Belvoir St Theatre until December 1

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