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The Seagull review at Lyric Hammersmith, London – ‘a manifesto’

The cast of The Seagull of Lyric Hammersmith, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton The cast of The Seagull of Lyric Hammersmith, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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It’s been a busy week for Simon Stephens with a show opening in the West End and now this new Chekhov adaptation at the Lyric Hammersmith. While not as engrossing or coherent as his Young Vic Cherry Orchard in 2014, it entertainingly plays with reality and theatricality.

Sean Holmes’ production exposes its workings. In long scene changes stage hands are visible behind gauze, while in Hyemi Shin’s design everything is just one degree of fakeness away from reality. The trees are chopped off at the top, the lawn is lurid astroturf. Every element reminds us that this is a piece of theatre.

As Arkadina, Lesley Sharp channels Jennifer Saunders in Ab Fab. She’s playing a performer, and it’s clear from the way she exaggerates little lines with a funny accent that her Arkadina is always putting on a performance. What’s particularly good is how that performance conceals Arkadina’s childishness, and vulnerability.

Sharp’s joined by an amazing cast: Brian Vernel’s angsty Konstantin, but Michele Austin’s put-upon Pauline, Paul Higgins’ authoritative doctor, and a wonderfully pitiable performance from Nicolas Tennant as Irina’s brother Peter.

Naturally for a play whose leading characters are either writers or actors, a few of the speeches in Stephens’ Seagull adaptation are very knowing, but they also set up contrasts between old forms (of writing, of acting) and new – and then start to break them down. This feels like a manifesto by Stephens, and by Holmes, for what contemporary theatre – especially when it comes to staging the classics – could be.

Tonally unsettling, at one moment it’s absurd, even grotesque, then it’s quite trad, this sometimes feels like a production of Chekhov that’s trying too hard to be cool, but if it makes it more accessible and more enjoyable – which, by and large, this does – then it’s all for a good cause.

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Simon Stephens’ clever and cool, if slightly thin, adaptation of Chekhov