There are some plays that leave you frozen for a second when they end. Where the whole audience pauses for just a few moments: no-one looks at their phone, or gathers up their coat, or even turns to a friend to discuss it because they’re so astonished by what they’ve just seen. (The Wings of the) Seagull was one of these plays.
The single actor play is set in 2014. Perhaps this setting is a little overemphasized at the start – there’s a sequence with a suitcase, a Harry Styles cut-out, and a whole host of other throwback items that lasts just a little too long. Yet this background is very important in highlighting the innocence and optimism of the central character, an unnamed 15-year-old, on their way to secondary school for a normal day.
We follow them though the typical school bus journey, maths class, and English lit, a witty and relatable first-person teenage commentary running throughout. Quotes about Curley’s Wife in English literature class make the audience smile, we relate to the awkward struggle to find an Oyster card at the front of the bus queue, and we sympathise when they complain that their best friend has been ditching them for his new girlfriend, setting up a very likeable and relatable lead. Again, the constant references to 2014 can seem a little forced, but the charisma of the lead actress, Pelin Morgan, and the entertaining and intelligent writing of Amitai Landau-Pope make this mundane scene both funny and genuinely interesting. It’s a normal day, with a school trip after lunch to see Chekov’s The Seagull. And then something awful happens.
I’m not going to spoil the experience of those of you still going to see the performance by telling you the ins and outs of it, but the trigger warnings for the production: ‘flashing lights, gunshots, suicide, sexual assault, a mention of extreme violence’ should give you a strong hint of the subject matter of the production. The powerful contrast between the happy, childish demeanour of the title actor in the early stages of the play, and the awful experiences they have to go through is incredibly poignant. The continual monologue highlights exactly how awful the situation is, and no member of the audience could fail to feel horrified at the events that we are told about.
The premise of the play revolves around Chekov’s The Seagull – although you certainly don’t need to know anything about it to understand what’s happening. There is a skilful interweaving of the two throughout the production: the title character watches it in some scenes, a literal seagull appears at an important turning point in the plot, and the concept of a play-within-a-play influences the entire production. It would be easy for this to be too on-the-nose, but the concept does not feel forced, and instead adds depth and dramatic irony to what is already a fascinating storyline.
The inextricable intertwining of tragedy and comedy runs throughout both (The Wings of the) Seagull and the Chekov original, with laugh-out-loud moments interspersed with stomach-churning horror, and pure sadness: the writing does credit to both Chekov and Landau-Pope. Yet the way in which the play switches from the modern day to 2014, 2017, and back again does allow a presentation of hope through an unsuccessful, but healing, later love affair, moving away from the original ending of The Seagull – in this, the title character, in their own words, “endures”.
I must finish by once again praising the superb acting of Pelin Morgan. It’s not easy to carry an entire one-hour performance alone, yet with a fantastic blend of physicality and emotion she more than does justice to an incredibly personal and horrifying subject. Credit must also be given to the voice actors, whose dialogue, heard throughout the play, helps to create a well-rounded and interesting production. Ultimately, (The Wings of the) Seagull is up there with some of the best student drama I’ve ever seen, and both Morgan and Landau-Pope’s talent cannot be overexaggerated.