Book, music and lyrics by Beth Hyland
Octagon Theatre Bolton & University of Bolton in association with Middle Child
Library Theatre, Bolton Museum
30 October 2019 - 16 November 2019; 2hr 5min
Bolton Octagon’s new artistic director, Lotte Wakeham, knew she was letting herself in for some theatrical sofa-surfing when she arrived, her theatre covered in scaffolding and not due to reopen until next spring after a major refurbishment.
So staging a world premiere musical in a lecture theatre in Bolton Museum as her first production was quite a task.
Seagulls, by Chicago-based playwright Beth Hyland, is variously described as gig theatre, an indie-rock musical and, of course, as inspired by Chekhov. It succeeds on all counts. You can tick off the Chekhov markers as you go along – and except for (spoiler alert) the missing gun, they are there to be found.
But the shift to a university (here Bolton, but transferable to pretty much any campus you care to name) gives the story a bitter-sweet naivety and much more humour than Chekhov (who called his play a comedy) usually evokes.
There is a fine line between intimacy and too close for comfort in a small theatre space, and lighting is the key. Here the audience is almost as well lit as the stage, which makes it feel a little too much like a student production.
With a cast of four and a tiny space, it is just as well that all the action, as in the original, takes place off stage. One early scene has all four ambitious musicians on the phone to their parents with news of their success in a local Battle of the Bands. The one-sided conversations tell us all we need to know about their home backgrounds and family relationships.
Con, the songwriter who knows he will never be able to live up to his pop-diva mother and her feted song-writing boyfriend, is the needy centre of the love quadrangle. In love with Nina but ignoring her own aspirations as a writer, he is indifferent to Masha’s love for him and carelessly soaks up Simon’s loyalty. Matthew Heywood plays the self-obsessed man-child well, but the balance of comedy, songwriter angst and very real depression is tricky to achieve and occasionally misses.
Violin-playing Nina (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) has more than a touch of Jane Horrocks about her performance. A characteristic broad accent combined with exquisite diction makes her song Muse one of the highlights of the show. And there is a sizeable nod to Ariana Grande when she returns as the disillusioned superstar, all knee-high boots and flying ponytail: “Ed Sheerin smells like a Brillo pad,” she tells Masha. But the anguish of her bruising brush with pop celebrity is there for all to see (at close range) and brings tears to our eyes.
Lauryn Redding (keyboard and guitar) brings an endearing, earthy heft to Masha, and her song Not Fair screams out the heartache of every wronged 18 year old. I kept imagining her as Adele, though someone else can write a thesis on Tears and laughter: Adele as a Masha for the 21st century...
The audience’s favourite moment is a lovely song called Anyway, sung with tenderness cut through with melancholy by Simon (Tomi Ogbaro). Any love song that starts “Mate…”, has got to be a winner.