Les­ley Sharp mon­strously funny in tear-filled Chekhov

The Guardian - - THE CRITICS -

Cre­ativ­ity and de­struc­tion, and the past and the present, march cheek by jowl in Si­mon Stephens’ punchy new ver­sion of Chekhov’s early play. It’s di­rected by Sean Holmes with an eye to the il­lu­sions of theatre, and the delu­sions we hold about oth­ers and our­selves.

Played (mostly) in mod­ern dress, it sits neatly in the Lyric Ham­mer­smith, a con­tem­po­rary build­ing hid­ing a jew­el­box 19th-cen­tury au­di­to­rium – old and new are in di­a­logue. Holmes makes great play of the fact that there is an au­di­ence on stage for would-be rad­i­cal play­wright Kon­stantin’s doomed play (res­o­nant with its im­ages of a planet de­stroyed), and that the char­ac­ters con­stantly ac­knowl­edge the theatre au­di­ence.

It makes Kon­stanin’s cry for new forms seem less like the ado­les­cent pos­tur­ing of a young man who at 25 still calls his mother “mummy”, and more like a di­rect chal­lenge to the au­di­ence, and pos­si­bly a note to Stephens him­self. “Un­less you take great care of it,” he says, “theatre can be the most te­dious, old-fash­ioned, prej­u­diced, elit­ist form there is.” Stephens, Holmes and a crack cast en­sure that it is never that, even if the pac­ing some­times stut­ters. This is not about then but about now, not about them but about us.

The pro­duc­tion art­fully re­minds us that we are in the theatre, with its shad­owy scene changes played be­hind a white screen so it seems as if the stage is haunted. Hyemi Shin’s de­sign of­fers an es­tate car­peted with emer­ald as­tro-turf and daz­zling with fairy lights.

The more fake it is, the more it makes us see through the char­ac­ters’ fak­ery. This makes it one of the fun­ni­est Seag­ulls, but also one of the most heart­break­ing. The fi­nal con­fronta­tion be­tween Brian Ver­nel’s pas­sion­ate, emo­tion­ally in­fan­tilised Kon­stantin and Ade­layo Ade­dayo’s sweetly, painfully earnest, star-struck Nina is al­most un­bear­able.

Sel­dom has the play so clearly shown how the old in­oc­u­late them­selves against the pas­sion and ide­al­ism of the young by crush­ing them. Les­ley Sharp’s Irina is mon­strously funny but also ter­ri­fy­ing in the way she so ca­su­ally de­stroys her son and has­tens Nina to­wards de­struc­tion as surely as Ni­cholas Gleaves’ ego­tis­ti­cal writer, Boris. An emo­tion­ally acute, at times rev­e­la­tory, evening. Lyn Gard­ner Un­til 4 Novem­ber. Box of­fice: 020-8741 6850.

Fake re­al­ity… Si­mon Stephens’ Seag­ull

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