A musical drama inspired by Chekhov? It’s a concept that inspires more of an ‘oh’ than an ‘oh my, where can I get a ticket?’ Visions of passionate speeches interrupted by a troupe of tap dancers swim before your eyes. It could have been excruciating. Thankfully there wasn’t a tap number or chorus girl in sight. Joe Evan’s music was haunting, full of the heavy melancholic longing of traditional Eastern European folk songs. The singing was beautiful, particularly in the ensemble pieces. But the play was the thing.

We find Chekhov having dinner with his friends. He’s not yet the celebrated playwright, just a young country doctor who’s published a few short stories. As his friends talk we realise they are familiar. We recognise parts of the dialogue and some of the stories they tell. They are the real people who Chekhov would later carve into characters in his dramas.

Linnie Reedman’s script is loosely based on Chekhov’s The Seagull. Pretending her characters are the inspiration for the Russian original is a brilliant way of re-imagining a play. Every alteration Reedman has made becomes significant. Ah, we think, so that’s what they were really like.

As in the original Seagull, the action revolves around Nina, a tragically naïve romantic. Chekhov’s heroine is the embodiment of innocence cruelly destroyed. Reedman offers us a much more modern (anti) heroine. She exaggerates Nina’s girlish spontaneity until it becomes a petulant self-obsession. Instead of longing to be a brilliant and feted actress, this Nina simple wants to be famous and to know the famous. Yet this shallow and dislikable creation is the more interesting and believable character. You can easily imagine her being the chaotic reality that a writer might idealise into a simple allegory. In both versions, Nina is an unenviably hard part to pull off. It’s all too easy to give a grating performance and unfortunately Lindsay Crow gave one. But she’s a brilliant soprano and is probably better suited to opera. Persia Lawson stood out as the most engaging actor of the night, combining a dramatic sexual presence with a great weight of unspoken sadness.

The rest of the cast gave strangely fluctuating performances, that may have been result of first night nerves. Everyone had scenes in which they were movingly convincing as betrayed friends, callous lovers and deserted husbands. And then there were other moments that felt oddly like a school play.

There are kinks that could easily be ironed out, both on stage and in the script, but they don’t overwhelm the pleasure of the play. Song of the Seagull is intelligent, emotionally acute and seductively atmospheric.

Reviews by Jessica Lambert

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The Blurb

Song of the Seagull features the extraordinary events of one sultry summer’s evening in 1886, as Russia’s “brightest young stars” gather on the banks of the Volga. The death of a seagull changes all of their lives forever. Young Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, surrounded by Bohemian artists, writers and musicians, is lured away from the medical profession and begins to take his writing seriously. But his involvement with a young gypsy singer, and his relationship with landscape artist Isaac Levitan lead to a life-changing painting excursion to the Volga. Tragedy and disillusion inevitably follow the young, impetuous passion. As his friends pull him in different directions, his loyalties are torn. Isaac Levitan, the renowned landscape painter whose letters to and from Chekhov were destroyed at his request, shares Chekhov’s passion for nature and enjoyment of dirty jokes. But he is later dismayed to find himself in one of Chekhov’s stories, and considers this a gross betrayal. Vera Kommisarevskaya -  the first actress to play Nina in The Seagull and mentor of Stanislavski -  is desperate to be immortalised in a play and intermittently tells Chekhov deep secrets about herself; of her grief when her brother Grisha drowned and of her anguished mother wailing in the cherry orchard; her sexual betrayal by her husband which caused her deep hurt; anecdotes which inspire character back stories for The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull. 

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