The Seagull needs a roof to stop Chekhov's subtleties flying off

Plus: a 40-year-old play that will appeal to anyone whose parents spent the 1960s feuding and the 1970s decoupling

4 July 2015

9:00 AM

4 July 2015

9:00 AM

The Seagull

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, until 11 July

Alpha Beta

Finborough Theatre, until 19 July

A new Seagull lands in Regent’s Park. Director Matthew Dunster has lured Chekhov’s classic into a leafy corner of north London to see if it needs an upgrade. The new script, by yuppie-baiting playwright Torben Betts, is casual, slangy and sometimes gauche. Favourite moments have been struck out including the great opening line, ‘Why do you always wear black?’ And Betts decides to make Chekhov’s characters swear. ‘Bollocks’, ‘piss off’. I don’t know Russian but I’m sure Chekhov didn’t need coarse language to portray coarse souls.

The outside staging has been jazzed up too. A clunking great mirror hangs over the playing area like a bit of broken satellite. Angled at 45 degrees, it reflects a bird’s-eye view of the stage towards the stalls. Very odd but it works. It helps amplify the sound too. And sound is a big thing in this show. The busy recording track delivers ear-boggling whoomps of noise without warning or motive, as if a baby at the mixing-desk were pressing a button marked ‘Thunder Clap’. And Dunster aims for voiceover effects by playing recordings of some speeches over the loudhailers. So the poor old actor on stage, rather than delivering the lines, has to pretend to ‘muse silently’ by turning towards us and assuming a ruminative frown, with a hand rising slowly to the chin as a finishing touch.

The location works well early on. Kostya, in the opening scene, stages his pretentious play outdoors at sunset. And here we are outdoors at sunset. Perfect. But the rewards dwindle as dusk falls and the play moves to new emotional registers. The final scene is set in mid-winter with a storm howling and banging at the windows. The weather is effectively a character in the scene, announcing that destruction is at hand. But here the deadly blizzard is suggested by water dribbling in bucketfuls off the big mirror and sploshing on to the AstroTurf. Which doesn’t quite do it. The star, Janie Dee, is graceful, comically assured and excellent in many ways but she seems to realise she can’t reach the complexities of Arkadina’s character while acting the part in a meadow astir with mating jackdaws. Like her, the older thesps play a canny holding game. Bid low, break even. Keep it broad. Raise laughs from obvious gestures. Honk out your lines at top volume then get home in a cab for a piping tumbler of Lemsip to soothe the fevered cords. The younger actors (no need to name names) squawk too much, deliver unfelt gestures and can’t decide if they’re in a tragedy or a comedy. It’s both. The troubled heart of this play is a web of infinitely graded emotional contradictions. In a roofed space, Chekhov’s spine-tingling ironies simmer magically through the stillness of the enclosure. In a field open to the twinkling heavens they fly off into the purple vacancy.

Finborough Theatre has revived a domestic melodrama written more than 40 years ago by Ted Whitehead. His claim to fame: TV adaptations of Hardy. This solo piece charts a slow-motion bust-up between a philandering dad and a furious stay-at-home mum. The playing space has become a sitting-room where spectators lounge in chairs and sofas while the couple, Frank and Norma, charge about exchanging unpleasantries. If your parents spent the 1960s feuding, and the 1970s decoupling (as mine did), you’ll appreciate this blast of emotional horror.

Frank is nicely drawn as a frustrated, remorse-stricken fun-seeker. Christian Roe succeeds in making his louche, aggressive sarcasm sympathetic. Norma is simpler and less likeable. Sexually inert and prone to hysterical gestures, she threatens to kill herself, and the kids, if Frank sticks to his partying life-style. The script zings with pithy asides. ‘Suicide is the one thing you never regret.’ When Norma asks Frank on what grounds he seeks divorce, he says, ‘I’m married.’ The play has been updated to the present day and it still rings true, almost entirely, except that our expectations of marriage have loosened up. Back then it was accepted that parenthood meant the end of one’s youth. Both characters refer to Frank as ‘middle-aged’ and even ‘old’. He’s 28. The final scene explodes into a violent dust-up involving the key texts of bourgeois aspiration. Frank gets hit on the chin with Gorky Park and he responds by launching Summoned by Bells at Norma’s head. The Ascent of Man catches him on the shoulder but he responds with a perfectly flighted Yeats before ducking, although not fast enough, as Eisenstein’s The Film Sense glides in and prangs him on the ear. Animal Farm, hurled twice, misses its mark and the fight ends as an obscure tome, The Rights of Minority Cultures (author’s name a blur as it flew over the sofa), hits Norma in the gob.

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Show comments
  • Thanks: I can’t see the play as I’m stuck up a mountain — a familiar refrain to those that know me — so I’ll view it partially through the Kindle peephole.