The Seagull, Royal Court London<br/>Comfort Me With Apples, Hampstead London (and touring)<br/>Happy Days, NT Lyttelton London

Mothers and sons
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The Independent Culture

Some screen stars just can't do it. Others prove their worth a thousand fold when they take to the stage. Kristin Scott Thomas is scintillating in Ian Rickson's new production of Chekhov's The Seagull, without herself exuding obtrusive celebrity status. This is paradoxical since she is playing Arkadina, a character who exudes precisely that: a theatrical diva who loves being the centre of attention and woundingly sidelines her son, the fledgling writer Konstantin, by leaving him on her country estate and laughing at his avant-garde playlet when she pays a flying visit.

But what Scott Thomas avoids is a flamboyant caricature. She is cleverly understated even as she reveals - in little flashes - the stellar thesp's preposterous egocentricity, meanness and histrionic side. Elegant in grey silk, she has swanky self- assurance but also a springy, still-girlish charm and startling silent pangs of regret regarding her maternal shortcomings. Her vanity conceals insecurity too as her lover, the famed novelist Trigorin, becomes obsessed with Konstantin's star-struck sweetheart, Nina.

Indeed, what comes into vivid focus here - using Christopher Hampton's fine new English version - is that Chekhov was grappling not just with the human tragicomedy of unrequited love and unfulfilled lives but also, centrally, with the nature of celebrity and creative endeavour. You strongly sense that he and Hampton know of what they speak, as Mackenzie Crook's Konstantin reviles and rips up his unsatisfactory manuscript and as Trigorin (Chiwetel Ejiofor), insists that writing is not glamorous but a voracious addiction.

Unfortunately, in other respects, this production falls short of expectations. I far preferred Katie Mitchell's recent polemically experimental, fiercely urgent NT production. Though well known from The Office on TV, Crook is a sorely disappointing Konstantin. Certainly, he's so skeletal you can well believe him fatally neurotic - just skin and bone and raw nerves. But his performance isn't nearly wired enough. Stage acting requires sustained intensity. He keeps going slack. He grows more fraught towards the end, but only really shines in his tenderly yearning and painfully cold-shouldered scenes with his mother and Carey Mulligan's Nina.

Mulligan is exquisite: sweetly naive but foolishly dazzled. Intimations of her emotional fragility are there from the start, with her tic of pressing her wrist to her forehead. However, other characters, especially Ejiofor's Trigorin, seem too nice and, whilst Hildegard Bechtler's monochrome settings have a funereal mournfulness, Rickson's normally fine-tuned directing feels awkward when he pushes the comedy here. This is his final production as artistic director at the Royal Court where he has struggled to find top calibre new plays. This may be his bid to become a West End director of the classics. If so, one wishes him better luck in the future.

A trace of Chekhov lingers in Comfort Me With Apples, now touring nationally from Hampstead Theatre. In Nell Leyshon's award-winning new play, everyone is stuck in a rural backwater, but this is about a dysfunctional family on a decaying apple farm in Somerset. The bullish yet needy matriarch, Veronica Roberts's Irene, shuffling around in wellies and a nightdress, is deranged with grief after the death of her husband yet maintains a vice-like grip on her son, trying to eradicate any contact with his estranged sister and his childhood sweetheart. Leyshon's dialogue has a sparse, emotionally rooted truthfulness and, though little happens, the tension is acute.

Bailey's ensemble are all excellent, including Penny Layden's bitter yet loving Brenda, the disowned daughter, and Graham Turner as Irene's simple brother. Mike Britton's set is beautifully haunting, blurring the farmhouse kitchen with the rolling grey earth and rotting apples of the orchard outside. There's also an extraordinarily bold, final image of silent despair, of wanting to simply lie down and die.

Somehow Fiona Shaw failed to grab me, interred up to waist in gravel, playing Winnie in Sam Beckett's near-monologue, Happy Days. I'm no admirer of the Beckett estate's past inelasticity regarding directorial innovations, but Deborah Warner's staging, designed by Tom Pye, manages to be distractingly grandiose. Instead of a simple, scorched grass mound, here Winnie appears to be buried alive on a demolition site- going-on vast moor, complete with distant mountains on the painted backcloth. Slabs of concrete and broken bricks are strewn around, presumably representing the ruined shards of Winnie and her morose husband Willie's home/marriage. In another crass touch, Shaw starts out sucking her thumb like a baby, before becoming exaggeratedly decrepit in Act Two, with blackened teeth.

What Shaw does have, very persuasively, is the manner of an ex-convent school girl trying to maintain a perky air and her faith in how wonderful life is, wittering away with suppressed desperation rising to the surface. Her climactic wild screams are hair-raising. But then right at the close, Tim Potter's Willie emerges from his hole and is hopelessly bland, smiling weakly at his bride with no deadly menace at all.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

'The Seagull' (020 7565 5000) to 17 March; 'Comfort Me With Apples' (020 7722 9301) touring to 31 March; 'Happy Days' (020 7452 3000) to 1 March

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