The Seagull

The novelty of seeing Simon Haines in a student play isn’t enough for TOBY PARKER-REES. Ironically, the standout performance was from a complete greenhorn called Lily.

ADC Theatre, 1st-5th March, 7.45pm, £6-10

Directed by Richard Keith

[rating:3/5]

The ADC’s lamentable practice of insedulously aping the West End like a backward sibling continues apace this week with a nice bit of stunt casting. Yes, they’ve put Simon Haines in The Seagull.

And yes, everyone’s been saying ‘but he’s never done student theatre before, why is he waltzing into an ADC mainshow like Mr Monopoly?’ – but he has as much a right as any of us to waltz, hasn’t he? The intertextuality of this noted translator playing an acclaimed writer was bolstered by his serviceable script’s winking references to other Chekhov plays throughout. How we laughed.

Or rather, we didn’t. The audience was awful for the majority of the first half; some rather nice comic business falling on lumpenly deaf ears. It took Laurie Coldwell’s flawlessly ridiculous Ilya, who made the act of walking in wellingtons preposterously funny, to remind them that Chekhov was in it for the lolz as much as for the cringes.

Look carefully to catch a glimpse of Haines himself

Photographs by Jessica Lambert

There was a sense that much of the audience had come simply to see Simon Haines in the flesh, and as soon as they had done so they became restless and irritable. The significant number of empty seats post-interval is testament to this, and it is their own fault – don’t come to see student Chekhov if you’re easily bored. In the Surrealist Manifesto Andre Breton laments the ‘purely informative style’ of the Russians, suffixing a lengthy description of a parlour from Crime & Punishment with the Gallic pout ‘he is wasting his time, for I refuse to go into his room’. More than half the lines in this play were pure exposition; placemarking and backstory.

Worse than this, however, we did not even really get a chance to go into Chekhov’s room – merely to admire the nicely patterned curtains from the street. It is bad enough that this makes three weeks of ADC mainshows devoted to metatheatricality; an institution now dangerously close to eating itself. But if you are going to put on a play mocking ‘those plastic men and women strutting under bright lights with veins sticking out of their necks’, even if that mocking is diegetic, you had better make it sing. It didn’t sing – it jerked like a mounted seagull. The actors, with the exception of a fantastic moment between Joey Batey and Victoria Ball as archetypically dysfunctional mother and son, held each other stiffly and coldly, like a pervert’s Playmobil.

A strange congregation of registers and performance styles brought out the cobbled-together nature of the script, assembled from every translation available. Ball and Batey both revived parts they have played successfully in the past – she was Lady Bracknell with a modicum more empathy, he was back in the curlicued histrionics of The Cure. Jacob Shephard’s billowing Uncle Peter belonged in Jeremy Hardingham’s Unfolding King Lear, especially his ludicrously slapstick collapse. Most of the great moments in this production were between the lines; in looks, fumbles and jolts. The only thing unifying the pied performances was a curiously homogenised binary rhythm – almost everyone spoke in jarring iambs throughout, which can’t have helped the flagging star-spotters in the cheap seats.

Those able to avoid the spacious volubility of a drumming decasyllabon shone. A newcomer, Lily something, who played Nina, disintegrated beautifully as the action built. It is very easy to portray a bad actress, but far harder to portray a competent but unremarkable one. Her performance in the play-within-a-play was judiciously textured, reminding me of Rupert Pupkin’s stand-up at the end of The King of Comedy; not bad, but not good. Which means, in fact, that she was as good as Robert de Niro used to be. One to watch, certainly.

Genevieve Gaunt’s Masha was gently compelling, and everyone did at least something right (apart from whoever was in charge of the rasping din they called a soundtrack) – this is the first show I’ve seen that was exactly three stars. If you have a long attention span, don’t tear up your ticket. There’s enough here to be worth an evening out, but little more.