Thursday, 31 October 2019

THEATRE REVIEW: Seagulls - The Library Theatre, Bolton

This is the world premiere of a modern-day musical, with just four performers, based on Anton Chekhov’s classic play “The Seagull”. Beth Hyland, writer of both the music and lyrics, shook the original story out of its Russian corsets and into the tale of a 21st century university rock band in Bolton. Music gig met pocket-sized musical in a noisy, poignant and comedic display in the Bolton Library Theatre, produced by the Bolton Octagon.

'Seagulls' was the often-disputed name of the band, and the characters were second year students of the University of Bolton. Frontman was Con (the Konstantin character), who wanted to be a very serious indie rock musician, but not because he has a mother who is a famous pop star (the Irina character – sadly we never met her). Matthew Heywood was a joy in this role: edged up with pretension, bossing everybody in sight from behind his guitar, and lamenting the cheerful folksy tunes that their student union audiences preferred: “It’s got handclapping in it!” A disastrous and painfully hilarious scene occurred when he finally rebelled against the need to be entertaining, hurriedly handed the other Seagulls the lyrics to a new and radically different song, and began wailing in angst down the microphone while playing discordant chords on a keyboard with his bare feet. Anybody who has ever been near up-and-coming musicians has met a Con.

The emotional heart of the production was driven by Con’s girlfriend Nina, performed by the multi-talented Flora Spencer-Longhurst: she had a lovely touch on the violin, a beautiful singing voice, and her acting performance was of warmth, humour, innocence and vulnerability. After losing patience with Con, she took up the offer to go on tour with the famous rock star Trigorin – who she had happened to have met, as he was the boyfriend of Con’s equally famous mother. Repackaged as just “Nina”, in white furry coat and pink sequins, she was initially overjoyed at her fortune…. And gradually got harder, and less innocent, and finally, in a performance in an arena to a synth pop soundtrack, she was indistinguishable from the production line of female pop singers seen every day on MTV. Her revelation song of what had really happened on the tour was the musical equivalent of the famous “I am a seagull” speech, and Spencer-Longhurst held the audience in the palm of her hand throughout it.

Frequently caught up in these band tensions without really wanting to be were keyboardist and guitarist Masha, and bass player Simon (the Semyon character.) Lauryn Redding was earthy and solid as Masha, usually holding onto her coolness from behind the keyboard (“I want to be a hot widow” when asked why she wore black all the time), and just keeping things grounded. Tomi Ogbaro as Simon fluttered around her shyly in courtship (“We can get a sofa from Ikea!”), and did his best to protect Con from drinking himself to death before graduation.

Katie Scott’s design turned the entire Bolton Library Theatre into a gig venue, right down to audience members getting their hands stamped with “SEAGULLS” as they entered the space. Grungy, student union-type posters were on the walls and pillars, and fairy lights were strung above the audience’s heads. Lotte Wakeham’s stage direction was pacey and energetic, and combined with James Frewer’s sharply precise yet evocative musical direction, it was very easy to forget where we really were, and be transported to vibrant and much larger concert stages. During the curtain call, the actors gave the audience permission to turn back on their phones and devices so Seagulls could be filmed performing their encore song, and a sea of little blue screens was held up to capture the lights, sound and booming musical energy of the Bolton Octagon’s borrowed stage.

Reviewer - Thalia Terpsichore
on - 30/10/19

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