Book, Music & Lyrics: Beth Hyland
Director: Lotte Wakeham
Reviewer: May Mellstrom
Hosting the world premiere of a new musical is an exciting and ambitious choice from Artistic Director Lotte Wakeham, particularly when the musical is a contemporary adaptation of Chekhov’s late 19th Century classic The Seagull.
It sounds an unlikely fit and yet the themes of the original remain; the desire to live up to family expectation, to achieve greatness and fulfil your potential, the pain of unrequited love. The country estate of the original is gone; Con, Nina, Masha and Simon are now navigating student life, their own tangled relationships and a ‘Battle of the Bands’ competition. It is surprising how little the characters need to change, illustrating the continued relevance of Chekhov’s work. No prior knowledge is required but those familiar with the play will enjoy spotting the internal references and clever ways in which the story has been adapted for the 21st Century.
Billed as a piece of ‘gig theatre’ rather than traditional musical theatre and co-produced by Middle Child who specialise in the form, Seagulls fuses live music with storytelling to create a unique and vibrant atmosphere.
Fresh from converting into a cycle track for the Octagon’s last production, the lecture theatre underneath Bolton Library has now been transformed into a music venue, complete with band posters adorning the walls and optional hand stamps on entry. Of all the spaces used whilst the main theatre is under renovation, the Library Theatre feels the most suited, capturing the intimacy of the Octagon although not giving the cast much room to work with.
American writer Beth Hyland has provided the book, music and lyrics with Wakeham adapting this for Bolton audiences. Crucially the music itself feels befitting of a band, in an indie folk style with lyrics that provide crucial insight into the characters emotions.
The talented cast of four play all instruments live and smoothly transition between spoken scenes and musical performance. Matthew Heywood and Flora Spencer-Longhurst return after performing together in Beryl and both already have a believable chemistry. As Con, Heywood is the driving force behind the band but constantly strives to be ‘better’, desperate to write music with the power to change lives. Spencer-Longhurst’s Nina dreams of fame and success but ultimately wants Con to recognise her own talents; in the strongest song in the show she pleads to be more than his ‘Muse’.
Completing the quartet, Lauryn Redding drily delivers some of the best lines as Masha but shows the emotional turmoil of her unrequited love for Con and Tomi Ogbaro is likeable as the dependable, good-natured Simon, who knows Masha’s feelings yet loves her anyway.
They have funny and frank conversations about sex, relationships and their future although these are mostly a series of two-handers, it would be interesting to see more interaction between all four and how they came together. Hyland’s book establishes the characters and setting well but the second Act features some leaps forward that don’t feel entirely earned and could be fleshed out further. This leads to an ending that avoids the tragedy of Chekhov but feels sudden rather than satisfying.
Ultimately Seagulls is a well performed new show with a strong musical score that is unlike anything seen at the Octagon before. Importantly it will appeal to a wider audience than some of the theatre’s more traditional fare. An enjoyable coming of age tale, Seagulls provides a fun and different night out and hopefully will be a sign of further innovative and bold productions from the Octagon in the future.
Runs until16 November 2019