FOUR STARS

 

"No more shooty-shooty when mummy’s gone, eh?” Thus super-smart, forty-something actress Irina (Abigail Cruttenden) to her son Konstantin (Alexander Cobb), a young man who has already shown a distressing propensity for self-harm. Yes, writer John Donnelly’s vigorous new version of The Seagull certainly supplies credible modern parlance in an updating of the Chekhov classic — more comic in tone than is usual — which lends it a thrilling relevance to 21st-century Britain.

Konstantin promises ‘mummy’ he will keep his gun stowed, though it would be quite understandable if he didn’t, for he is one very sad and shabby figure. The budding playwright is obliged, like so many of our ‘boomerang generation’, to live in the family home through lack of money. Well-heeled mater refuses to give him any; she needs every penny to lavish on her own looks and wardrobe.

Then, following the failure of the garden staging of his revolutionary and risible new drama — Irina leading the company in laughing at it — come signs that its principal player Nina (Pearl Chanda), whom he loves, is casting her eyes elsewhere. This sensitive and emotionally fragile young woman is spellbound by the alluring glamour of Irina’s lover Boris (Gyuri Sarossy), a writer whose huge success is a further source of fury for Konstantin. Hearing whispers of a challenge, the “brave and brilliant” Boris (in the words of Irina) is ready to leave the estate. “Ignominious flight!” says Konstantin in Elisaveta Fen’s Penguin translation, familiar over the past 60 years. Here his rival scoffs: “Brave! He practically sh*t himself.”

Irina, for her part, clearly feels no qualms concerning the likely defection of her man. Her potent power over him is demonstrated in a graphic (and cheerily comic) sexual encounter between them aboard the see-saw-like structure which, a few chairs and back screen apart, is almost the sole feature of Laura Hopkins’s minimalist set.

This ‘in-yer-face’ romp did make me briefly wonder about the 14+ guideline for this production, as did the frequent four-letter words. But realisation that this is the internet age soon dispelled such fears. Why deprive kids of the riveting action that director Blanche McIntyre and her cast supply?

Among a raft of top-class performances, none has a stronger emotional heft than that of Ms Chanda, as Nina. Remarkable that this is her professional debut. Jenny Rainsford, meanwhile, brings an Ab Fab pizazz to her portrayal of a vodka-guzzling Masha, sublimating her unrequited passion for Konstantin in a marriage to dull-dog schoolteacher Semyon (Rudi Dharmalingam).

With fine work, too, from David Beames as the all-seeing doctor, Yevgeny, Colin Haigh as Irina’s world-weary invalid brother Petr and John Elkingdon as the truculent bailiff Ilya, this proves another triumph for Headlong Theatre.

Until Saturday: Box office: 01865 305305, oxfordplayhouse.com