From the Loughborough-based theatre company Topcliffe House Productions comes this express version of Anton Chekhov’s 1896 play, The Seagull. Focusing on the thwarted aspirations and affections of its four main characters, the piece explores the suffering that seems inextricably linked with romance, creativity and the human condition in general.
At its heart are Konstantin, a struggling writer aiming to escape the suffocation of convention with a new form of art; his mother Irina, a celebrated actress who is perhaps past her prime; her lover Boris Trigorin, a successful playwright; and Nina, an idealistic country girl who harbours dreams of upping sticks to the big city and making it as a star of the stage.
To complicate (and demoralise) matters, everyone seems to be in love with someone they shouldn’t be. Boris and Irina are romantically involved, but he becomes enthralled by Nina, as she is by him. Meanwhile, Konstantin is devoted to her, but the eternally gloomy and chronically alcoholic Masha harbours feelings for him. Completing the daisy chain of unrequited attentions is humble schoolteacher Semyon, who wants Masha to become his wife.
As well as exploring the consequences of Cupid’s bow and arrow never quite hitting the mark you wish it would, The Seagull also puts theatre and creativity under the microscope. There are plentiful references to Shakespeare, Tolstoy and other literary luminaries, while the four central characters all suffer from various forms of self-doubt and disillusionment. In typical Chekhov style, it’s peppered with bleak introspection and political satire, while there’s even room for his notorious firearm to make an appearance.
Presenting a fully-fledged four-act play, Topcliffe House have done an admirable job in shoehorning this Russian classic into an abridged runtime, although a full disclaimer should disclose that it does miss its 40-minute target by almost a quarter of an hour. Even so, it’s a breathless effort that scuttles along at pace, only losing some of its impact from the relentlessly gloomy storyline and incessant hand-wringing that accompanies it.
That’s a minor criticism of the dramatist, though, not the players, and the actors are well cast in their roles. There are a couple of wobbly moments – Irina and Boris’ brief argument and Konstantin’s final scene with Nina are both a little rushed and awkward – but for the most part, the characters remain believable, empathetic and fully-fleshed out.
The crew also makes sensible use of the space, utilising the area behind the stage to squeeze in an extra row of seating and performing a rapid scene change with minimal fuss. Now in their second year at the Fringe, Topcliffe House put in a steady if unspectacular performance that does justice to Chekhov’s work – just don’t expect to emerge with a sense of joie de vivre unscathed.