Overwhelming new production of Chekhov's classic, adapted by Simon Stephens
If you don’t like a play by Simon Stephens, don’t worry - there’ll be another one along soon. His third new London show of the year is a reworking of Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’, that opens just two days after his bewilderingly bad West End romcom ‘Heisenberg’. Mercifully, it’s a belter: chilling, impassioned, funny – everything ‘Heisenberg’ wasn’t.
Of course, the source material is pretty strong – even I could presumably only fuck up ‘The Seagull’ so much (I pray we never find out).
It has a deceptively jolly start. In the beginning it’s bright and boisterous and there’s the initial sense that Stephens and director Sean Holmes have decided to give the melancholy Russian masterpiece a fun but slightly superficial yoof-orientated makeover. There is fourth wall-breaking galore and all the gags are duly amped up as it begins on a colourful, fairy-lit patch of AstroTurf upon which Brian Vernel’s young, emo-y Konstantin is about to stage a peculiar avant-garde play for friends. It’s vivid, and amusing, and just the right side of cartoonish.
But this is a ‘Seagull’ that really spreads its wings, gaining power and stature until it’s almost overwhelming. It feels explicitly interpretated as a play about art and obsession, but that doesn’t make it cerebral and bookish, but mountingly nerve-wracking and intense.
It really kicks up a gear when Nicholas Gleaves’s Boris – the writer partner to Konstantin’s vain actress mother Irina – is left alone with Adelayo Adedayo’s magnetically gauche young actor Nina.
Boris's long, agonised, almost crazed explanation of his inability to enjoy his success because of his obsession with writing is surely an autobiographical emphasis from the hyperprolific Stephens. Gleaves’s Boris isn’t a pompous hack or puffed-up celebrity, but something more dangerous and unhinged. He is a force of nature, and Adedayo’s bright-eyed, unflappable Nina feels like his equal – her deluded optimism glows as brilliant and elemental as his anger. Her spirit is only crushed by events that happen offstage, before she returns for the last scene as a broken, ominous figure.
They’re the standouts but this is, above all, a fantastic ensemble piece. Lesley Sharp is the most famous cast member, with her picture on the posters. Her Irina doesn’t feel dominant, but it’s a great supporting turn – funny as the preening prims donna, but also horrifiying when she shrieks at Konstantin that he is ‘nothing’, her face contorted in bestial fury. Her selfishness is monstrous, and though we clearly see she loathes herself for it, she does nothing about it. Paul Higgins is excellent as a smart, likeable Doctor Hugo, who takes advantage of his status as the sanest of the bunch to engage in the bulk of the fourth wall breaking. And there’s particularly terrific work from designer Hyemi Shin - her set and costumes are an alluring mix of modern and anachronism, dazzlingly bright and chokingly dark.
From light, bright beginnings, Holmes’s production gathers momentum and menace, implacable and avalanche-like. It literally becomes darker, with the second half starting in inky gloom. By the end, Chekhov’s melancholy and Stephens iciness synthesize perfectly, as the shattered clan stumble the still shocking conclusion.
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Blimey - I saw this a couple of Saturday nights ago, and I barely recognise the show reviewed here. The one I saw was disappointingly flaccid. The direction was so poor and the acting so indifferent, there was no chemistry between any of the characters and that made it impossible to discern any connection between any of them or see what was at stake. While I don't mind a bit of period-twiddling, the modern dress - all casual slacks and Top Shop fashions - was so casual and bland, it looked like everyone had just wandered in to rehearsal and still hadn't gotten it right.