The Notebook of Trigorin is a big surprise. Tennessee Williams made no secret of his love for the work of Anton Chekhov, yet this reworking of The Seagull from the end of Williams's life remains barely known and rarely performed in this country. Back again at his old stamping ground near Earls Court, director Phil Willmott is giving the 30-year-old play its London première.
Chekhov's tale of two generations of creative artists – the aspiring youngsters (Constantine and Nina) thwarted by an older generation of complacent achievers (Arkadina and Trigorin) – struck such a chord with the young Williams that he developed a lifelong obsession with the play and its characters. He seems to have identified with several of them in turn, and here he recalibrates them as mirrors to his own soul.
It is Trigorin, in this version a self-doubting bisexual, who dominates (as the title would suggest), along with an hysterically demanding Arkadina. The ripely enjoyable performances of Stephen Billington and Carolyn Backhouse threaten to burst the narrow seams of the Finborough. Only once, during a broad comic interlude in act three, does their tone falter.
"A writer needs a bit of both sexes in him", declares Trigorin to explain his taste for a bit of stable-boy rough. Thus Chekhov's character has become pure Williams, and when he mutters, "I''ve forgotten my youth", we find ourselves wondering where he might have left him. This makes his interest in the fragile Nina (played by Samara MacLaren, the spitting image of a young Sissy Spacek) a little perplexing, because rough trade she certainly isn't. Still, it takes all sorts.
Willmott achieves wonders within the tiny space, abetted by the unfussy split-level design of Kim Alwyn and Aimee Sajjan-Servaes, and the nine actors shine under his direction. Richard Franklin is touching as Sorin, the voice of reason, Andrea Hall and Daniel Norford make an attractively mismatched couple as Masha and Medvedenko, and Lachele Carl is a sympathetic Polina who displays less interest than Chekhov would have expected in Morgan James's waspishly unprofessional Dr Dorn.
Alone among the protagonists, Constantine (a nicely tortured performance from Rob Heaps) survives The Seagull pretty much intact; in other respects the play's restive mood is Deep South all the way.
The one thing that prevents The Notebook of Trigorin from being counted among the playwright's greatest achievements is the absence of a baroque leading character - a Brick or a Blanche - to transcend the Chekhovian ensemble and suffer in extremis. But it's still a terrific find.