Bolton Octagon at Bolton Library Theatre.
30 October 2019.
Nina and Con are a couple. Masha has feelings for Con, but is in a relationship with Simon. All four of them are at university together and in a band called Seagulls. They’re about to enter a Battle of the Bands and the world seems full of possibilities.
Loosely inspired by Chekhov’s The Seagull, Beth Hyland’s new musical riffs on the romantic entanglements and artistic struggles at the heart of that play, to deliver a contemporary tale of love, dreams and disappointments. It’s Artistic Director Lotte Wakeham’s debut production at Bolton, and this collaboration with Hull-based Middle Child feels like a statement of intent, signalling a desire to engage a newer (and younger) audience. Wrapping some fast-paced broad-brush-storytelling around an energetic piece of gig-theatre, it’s as if Chekhovian angst has collided with Hollyoaks soapiness.
Designer Katie Scott gives the Library Theatre a busy student union vibe with posters and strings of lights, scattered rugs and beanbags, and an inky admission stamp on the back of your hand when you enter the space.
The action revolves around the four main characters, and some of them feel more developed than others. Con’s back story involves his mother who found success as a pop star in her youth, as well as her famous songwriter boyfriend. Although they never appear on stage, their visit to the university results in far-reaching consequences for both Con and Nina.
As jukebox musicals, with their tendency to awkwardly shoehorn established hits into their storylines, become ever more popular, Hyland’s catchy collection of original compositions feels especially refreshing. Each song genuinely drives the narrative forward, as they reveal her characters’ innermost thoughts.
So Lauryn Redding’s Masha lays bare her unfulfilled love for Con with the impassioned keyboard-driven Not Fair, while Flora Spencer-Longhurst’s Nina is like a kooky Lancastrian Joanna Newsom on Muse as she refuses to contemplate being overshadowed by any man, “I wasn’t born to sing back up so you’d better back up soon“. And when Tomi Ogbaro’s easy-going Simon finally steps into the spotlight to declare that Masha’s compromised feelings for him are enough for now as far as he is concerned, Ogbaro comes close to stopping the show with his soulful, heartbreaking delivery of the slow-burning Anyway.
Hyland’s score encompasses a range of styles, and a good proportion of the songs are memorable enough to follow you home after the show and linger. A couple of them are reprised (or ‘re-mixed’) within the show and effortlessly carry the weight of re-interpretation. Bright and breezy opener Remember, for example, returns as something more jagged and mournful in the second act.
Unfortunately, the script doesn’t hold together as well as the music and lyrics, and events often feel rushed, or even worse, glossed over. If you’re going to highlight the exploitative nature of the music industry and, in particular, how older and powerful men can take advantage of young female artists, you might want to clear a bit more space to properly consider an issue as timely as that.
Not all of this is down to Hyland’s book, Wakeham’s direction can occasionally lack clarity. When Matthew Heywood’s troubled Con derails a Seagulls concert with a synthy dirge about global warming, are we meant to laugh uproariously (as so many of the audience do) at the awfulness of the song, or should we feel uneasy at the manic undertones of his misjudged performance? Similarly, when he is hospitalised and needs his stomach pumping, are we to read more into it, or is it just the result of a carelessly consumed cocktail of drink and drugs? Fumbled moments like those, feel like missed opportunities to explore darker depths that are often only hinted at.
As a piece of gig-theatre, the show’s many strengths favour the gig elements of the concept. Under James Frewer’s skilful musical direction, the live music manages to feel polished while retaining a powerful sense of immediacy. Ultimately, the enthusiasm of the cast and the strength of their performances, especially musically, helps Seagulls to soar.
Images by The Other Richard