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The Seagull (Tour - Watford)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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This is an outstanding production by Blanche McIntyre for Headlong (co-produced with the Nuffield, Southampton, in association with Derby Theatre) of Chekhov's play: it is fresh, funny, absolutely original and still properly attentive to the core themes of artistic aspiration, emotional cruelty and the changing theatre.

The Seagull is always most affecting when it conveys the frustration and excitement of a new start, a new approach, and Alexander Cobb as Konstantin and Pearl Chanda as Nina, both on the threshold of their careers (Chanda is making her professional debut), are both superb.

And they are given the best possible framework by McIntyre and designer Laura Hopkins, who provides a skeletal set of a high platform in a neutral tundra that is scrawled over with drawings and phrases, lit by Guy Hoare to accentuate the idea of an outdoor performance by the lake in silhouette, and complemented with raised house lights to implicate the audience during soliloquies.

John Donnelly's "new version" is fresh and lively, too, and not in a gratuitous way, although Arkadina's desperate protective lunge - the actress is played with a fine, grainy hauteur by an utterly compelling Abigail Cruttenden - at the decadent writer Trigorin (Gyuri Sarossy) here involves a simulated sex act of outrageous ferocity.

The text is remote in detail from the original but true to its spirit, though Jenny Rainsford's striking Masha, who starts the play lolling on the platform, smoking, is not exactly in mourning for her life, more troubled by her skirt sticking to her thighs in the summer heat.

The characters are referred to by their Christian names, so it takes a while to realise that David Beames' sharply gestured Yevgeny is in fact the soignée doctor ("Dorn Juan") and John Elkington's fleshy Ilya, the estate manager Shamrayev.

His wife, Polina, is given a sad, willowy, etched quality by Catherine Cusack, while Arkadina's brother, Sorin, is similarly, and sharply, defined by Colin Haigh. There's no room here for any of that Chekhovian mooning about, nor should there be, and the insistence of taking each scene on its intrinsic merits results in this overall distinctive dynamic.

Yes, you can compare this Chekhov with Benedict Andrews' work on Three Sisters at the Young Vic last year, it's similarly radical but without the cultural updates (beyond a quick burst of "Some Enchanted Evening"). Even more appropriately with this play, it's a young director's vision of a classic for a young audience.

I always feel the interval in The Seagull should be taken after the third act, but the passage of two years is well done here, and the metaphorical seagull's broken wings litter the stage with a terrible poignancy and without any clutter of interior furniture. The whole play becomes Konstantin's breakthrough gone horribly wrong.