This Seagull begins, as they all do, with a play-within-a-play, but Anya Reiss's new modern-day adaptation of Chekhov's drama is far less about the theatre than others I have seen. It is about love, and even more than that, is it about ageing, whether growing up – as the play's young people find themselves forced to do – or growing old, the unfortunate plight of the play's elder generation.
This is the first time that Reiss has attempted an adaptation of one of the classic writers and it is an assured beginning. Her witty, understated rendering captures perfectly the dark comedy of the various love triangles (essentially everyone is in love with someone else and it's almost always the wrong person entirely) and Konstantin and Arkadina's toxic mother-son relationship is effectively portrayed. It's impossible to really sympathise with either of them, but Sasha Waddell's merciless take on poor, self-absorbed Arkadina almost makes you forgive the many flaws of Joseph Drake's jealous, petulant Konstantin.
The love affair that brings the play's action to its head, between Lily James's starry-eyed Nina and Arkadina's other half Trigorin (played with charming detachment by Anthony Howell, is beautifully handled. The pair are in awe of each other from the very beginning, though it is not until the middle of the play that their courtship proper begins.
As Trigorin and Nina circle each other around the stage, eventually coming together to make their veiled declarations, it's unclear who's chasing whom. Made quite obvious however, is the fact that this relationship is doomed to failure. James's Nina may seem knowing early on, but by the end of this conversation we're left in no doubt that one of the pair is going to come off badly, and it's not going to be Trigorin.
Director Russell Bolam matches Reiss's stripped down script with an unfussy staging that allows his very able cast to shine. The supporting characters are a joy – there are no duff scenes in this tightly sprung production.
Ben Moor as clueless teacher Medvedenko and Michael Beckley as estate manager Shamrayev provide easy laughs, while Matthew Kelly's Dorn, Emily Dobbs's Masha, Malcolm Tierney's Sorin and Julia St John's Polina present a more nuanced, bittersweet picture of lives made complicated by duty and unrequited affection.
Kelly, of course, is the show's star name, and although Dorn is not a starring role, the actor will not disappoint those who come to see him. Kelly is a smaller, subtler Dorn than the one I expected, always on hand to offer a sardonic response but never robbing the attention from the main plot.
Sound designer George Dennis and lighting designer Tim Mascali create atmosphere-rich scene changes that keep our attention focused on the drama, rather than breaking up its flow. Jean Chan's set and costumes respond to the passage of time – maturing along with the play's characters, they get darker and more sombre as the play goes on.
Reiss's updating of this 1896 drama, while mostly persuasive, doesn't entirely succeed. The contemporary references, to laptops, mobiles and the like, work nicely, but there's a nagging disconnect between the rather old-fashioned notions of love and sacrifice and the contemporary setting. There are also moments at which the play's inherent melodrama – I’m thinking in particular of some of the more tortured scenes involving Konstantin and Nina – threatens to undermine the fine work that Reiss and Bolam have done adapting Chekhov into a more modern style. But all in all, Reiss shows a firm grip on this material, once again demonstrating maturity beyond her years.