"The Ottoman Express has been delayed due to an altercation with the universe..." The opening announcement of Liverpool company Base Chorus's The Man Who Stole A Winter Coat indicates that the following two hours could consist either of self-satisfied surrealism or a darker dream-logic. The first few lyrics of Patrick Dineen's piece (he writes, composes and directs it), with their easy, semi-nonsensical rhymes, do little to resolve matters. Gradually, however, a distinctly Expressionist atmosphere takes over. Identities and narratives shift and refuse resolution in a manner reminiscent of The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari; verbal and imagistic motifs keep cropping up without ever being illuminated or explained, growing in shadowy potency with each repetition.
The story itself shifts in the telling. A Swiss crop-spraying salesman (Duncan Henderson) finds himself marooned in "the city of winter coats" somewhere to the Slavic east, where extravagant fur creations are an expression both of identity and ancien régime privilege. His own off-the-peg coat becomes a symbol of revolution through mass production, but is exchanged for the garment worn by the chief revolutionary. The salesman, previously mistaken for this sartorial agitator, now seems to become him... or is he merely dreaming this change of identity, or indeed his entire journey? Or is the other person dreaming him? This is a difficult kind of piece to pull off without succumbing either to wilful obscurity or a knowing smugness. Dineen and his cast of six avoid such pitfalls.
All this, and it's a musical too. Around half of the show is sung, and the music continues virtually uninterrupted even beneath spoken dialogue. Dineen's synthesized arrangements add to the dreamlike Expressionist texture, although the music itself is less imaginative than it may appear; only once, for instance, is unison singing eschewed as the protagonist moves periodically into minor-third harmony. In the end, though, the bizarrerie of lines such as "It's ten past velvet and twenty to hem" and "It's such a beautiful night for mass production" draw one further and further in to the bewildering whirl, as characters appear to ice-skate on the Lyric Studio's stage, communicate through hand mirrors and eat innumerable suppers of duck a l'orange. Very nice coats, too.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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