This sounded intriguing, a site specific musical drama inspired by real events in late 19th century Russia, as Anton Chekov, surrounded by his creative bohemian friends, forgoes the medical profession to become a full-time writer. The result of a collaboration between Linnie Reedman, director and book writer, and composer Joe Evans, who together formed “musicscape” (their word, not mine) production company, Ruby in the Dust, in 2006 with the express intent of pushing the boundaries of musical theatre. All to be played out around a specially commissioned art installation in the basement space of the Menier Gallery, part of the building that houses the Menier Chocolate Factory theatre. This really captured my interest, which really is half the battle, the other is being able to live up to the expectations now created, which is where the whole endeavour fails miserably.
The first disappointment is that it is not remotely “site specific” and there is no “art installation”, simply some paintings of varying quality hung on the walls as set decoration.
As the action begins, it becomes clear that the story is really that of Nina, Chekov’s friend who marries his medical colleague Osip. Nina, the one truly well-rounded character from actor/soprano Lindsey Crow, is a dilettante, an amateur painter and cellist, who surrounds herself with the latest fashionable artists, writers and actors, basking in their reflected glory. Abandoning Osip, played with much dignity by the exceptionally handsome Nicholas Gauci, Nina joins her friends for the summer at an artist’s retreat in the country and has an affair with Raphael Verrion’s Zac. When guilt finally gets the better of her, she returns to St Petersburg for a doomed reunion with Osip.
The problem is that the entire production feels like a lower-sixth drama project. This was the first preview, so it will presumably improve, but as the run is only two weeks, there is really not much time left to get it right. The clichéd script and repetitive songs sound like they have been written by an angst-ridden teenage girl barricaded in her bedroom. All of the characters, with the exception of Osip, are selfish and self-absorbed, I’m unsure if this is meant to be a deliberate comment on creators of great art or not. There is a self-consciously camp performance from Persia Lawson as Vera, a musician turned actress, (think Liza as Sally Bowles in Cabaret), and Chekov is side-lined as a mere bystander, quite why the behaviour of his monstrous friends would convince him to give up medicine for literature is beyond me. An unveiling of a painting of Nina made by Zac during their summer romance is laughable, coming as it does from the same school as Beverley’s beloved erotic print in Abigail’s Party, playing to much acclaim in another room within the same walls. There are a couple of nice touches as Stephen Clarke’s Chekov is observing either from an alcove or from the audience, writing the action as we watch it, referencing heavily from The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard. However, these are not enough to rescue such poor material; honestly, how many times can one character say to another “you’ve changed”?
There are undoubtedly some capable young performers in the six strong cast, most notably Lindsey Crow, but they have so little opportunity to shine that this is simply a waste of their talents. When, towards the end of the second act Nina emotes “time drags endlessly”, I felt like jumping to my feet and shouting “I hear you sister, hallelujah and praise the Lord”.
Booking until 31 March 2012, as dead as a dodo - Song of the Seagull