“The company succeeds in conveying the narrative with a clear voice and creating emphatic and well-fitting roles”
Previously a place of worship, subsequently a female only gym, the broad octagonal expanse of Tower Theatre’s new home in Stoke Newington has plenty of potential for a set designer, especially one tasked with creating the numbing sense of distance demanded by The Seagull. For this production of Chekhov’s bleak comedy of imperfect relationships and mediocre talents stranded in the middle of nowhere, Rob Hebblethwaite creates a wide, painted landscape across the back of the hall, to set up an opening scene in which Konstantin (Dominic Chambers) stages a play outdoors with the sweet, young Nina (Rachael Harrison) hoping for the approval of his self-centred mother and her entourage.
After a strong opening, aided by Michael Frayn’s accessible translation and more particularly by Chamber’s excellently natural and rounded performance, this production starts to wane a little, but the amateur nature of the company is not without strengths. Chekhov’s characters are often better inhabited rather than performed and Tower Theatre’s long experience and large pool of members allows for some precise portrayals. As Sharayev, Richard Pederson is enjoyably boorish; Sorin is all too aware of his life’s inconsequentiality while perversely proud of his modest achievements, and Jonathan Norris manages this piteous balance effortlessly well. Even the tiny part of Yakov is entirely occupied by Alistair Maydon, stomping around like a man unaware of being on a stage. The more expressive central roles of Arkadina (Lucy Moss) and the successful writer Trigoran (David Hankinson) are harder ones in which to create the eerie naturalism that Chekhov’s dialogue allows. Both characters feel forced to start with, but they eventually settle down to deliver some compelling scenes; Moss and Chambers work together beautifully as the mother tends the son’s wounds and the way Hankinson as Trigoran succumbs knowingly to his own vanity and into Arkadina’s clutches, is engrossing.
Though this is Julia Collier’s directing debut at the company, her experience in pantomime brings unlikely benefits. There is no sense of holding back on costumes (Lynda Twidale) or movement (Lindsay Royan) and the clarity of characters and storyline is refreshing. Her approach does the audience the favour of making the dialogue and therefore the relationships (or lack of them) easy to follow. The show could improve; the play’s delicately told but heart-rending story of Medvedenko and Masha, for example, seems to be missing in plain sight, but if the combination of am-dram and Chekhov gives you the chills, this production could give you a fresh perspective of both. The company succeeds in conveying the narrative with a clear voice and creating emphatic and well-fitting roles.
“basics like vocal projection, coarse acting and stilted pacing let down its avant-garde aspirations”
In ‘The Seagull’, considered the first of his great works, Anton Chekhov was evidently reacting to his publisher’s advice that he should start to put quality above quantity. In the play, Trigorin (Robert Anthony) is also a prolific and successful writer, who embodies Chekhov’s industrious approach, when he says, ‘Day and night I am held in the grip of one besetting thought, to write, write, write!’ Arkadina (played in Alison Steadman style by Ciara Pounchett) is drawn to Trigorin’s fame, clinging not only to him, but to success, money and to maintaining her own youthful image. She visits her brother, Peter Sorin (Monty Lloyd), withering away on his country estate devoid of any such object of desire, to watch Konstantin (Dominic Debartolo), her son from a previous relationship, who attempts and fails to impress her, along with the rest of the gathering, with his own experimental theatre.
Thus, the themes of celebrity, acceptance, rejection, the yearning for love and affirmation become intertwined, and it’s the aspiring actress Nina, who compares these ineluctable forces to the drift of seagulls toward the lake on the estate. Konstantin, frustrated in love and raging at the complacency of the establishment, then shoots the eponymous seabird, ironically handing Trigorin inspiration for yet another book, the plot for which sounds very similar to the one we are watching.
Chekhov’s style is slow, layered, open to parody and fringe productions are not for the risk averse. Folding the country house vistas of Sorin’s estate into a room above a pub is a grim challenge and a ‘sexual, provocative and mind blowing modern interpretation’ is hardly guaranteed to convey the play’s elusive truths. Still, Theatre Collection’s founder Victor Sobchak was imprisoned for six months by the KGB for staging Jesus Christ Superstar in Russia, so is not unfamiliar with courage, or indeed small spaces. The set is accordingly basic, furnished with whatever is available from whatever period. The dialogue is adapted with familiar English idioms, with Sorin declaring himself ‘knackered’ and Konstantin reacting to Nina with ‘my arse’, but Masha and Medvedenko’s relationship (Sadie Pepperrell and Simon D’Aquino) seems diminished played only as bickering antagonists.
There are audacious ideas that work brilliantly, such as the unrequested blow job which both halts Trigorin’s drift towards Nina and clarifies Arkadina’s ruthless control. But Konstantin’s audacious accent did nothing to advance comprehension. Dominic Debartolo looked fine as the rebel creative, with eyeliner and shapeless black coat, but although his atonal cockney may have been intended to remind us of his father’s suspect roots, its random vowels and stresses meant it did so constantly.
There is a wonderful sense of abandon about Victor Sobchak’s back catalogue, with Theatre Collection being his third Anglo Russian theatre company. This collaboration with fellow Director Chris Diacopolous combines adventure and experience, but basics like vocal projection, coarse acting and stilted pacing let down its avant-garde aspirations. That advice about quality and quantity still holds.