Providing a fictional account of Chekhov and several of his artisan friends – all real life contemporaries – Reedman’s conceit is that the group’s exploits inspire the writer’s short stories, and eventually his plays. Joining the group is the enthusiastic artist Nina, who finds her new friends’ bohemian lifestyle more thrilling than life with her adoring, but predictable, husband.
And it’s Nina that becomes the play’s main focus, with many exploits signposting events in The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard. Lindsey Crow struggles to make her character anything more than a self-obsessed groupie, but most of the group she falls in with don’t fare much better. The two most interesting characters – and, not coincidentally, the two best performances – are Chekhov himself (a sensitive, warm portrayal by Steven Clarke) and the actress Vera Komissarzhevskaya. As Vera, Persia Lawson delivers the standout performance of the evening: proud, grieving, ambitious, loyal, occasionally cold. In the numerous original songs (crafted in a Russian folk style by Joe Evans), it is Lawson who consistently gives the best indication of a balance between song and the unfolding drama.
Unfortunately, these two characters are underserved by the play’s structure, which is more concerned with Nina, her relationship with her husband Osip (a hesitant but likeable Nicholas Gauci) and her affair with painter Zac (Raphael Verrion). And while the play gains atmosphere by being produced in an art gallery rather than a dedicated theatre space, the unimaginative seating arrangement means that the play’s most striking moments, which use two stone alcoves to suggest portraiture of the characters, do not work as well as they could have done: it’s hard to appreciate the beauty of a scene when you have a crick in your neck.
Ultimately, The Song of the Seagull is not about Chekhov enough to be an interesting biographical work, and struggles to make its Nina anywhere near as compelling as the character in The Seagull who she is so clearly supposed to inspire.