The Seagull, The Hub, Edinburgh<br></br>Prayer Room, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Raw Chekhov - with a twist

On the night I attended, some people - during the extended pause before the play began - made loud comments about the cast being tardy. However, Schilling's quiet little joke was on them, for Chekhov's characters were already among the audience, indistinguishable in everyday gear, waiting for the action to start. That is implicitly the story of their (and our) lives. It's also a highly intelligent and humorous move, adding an extra theatrical frame to this piece which already contains a playlet-within-a play.

With his small burly physique, Zsolt Nagy's hoodie-wearing Konstantin looks stolid but exudes a pit-bullish anger and needy babyishness as he tries to get his mother - the preening diva, Arkadina - to watch a homegrown performance of the avant-garde monologue which he has penned and which is to be enacted by his sweetheart Nina - the mesmerising, nervously coltish, ruinously star-struck Annamária Láng.

Schilling's 180-degree twist is also ingenious, making the playlet into a promenade piece with Nina dashing behind the audience, followed by all Konstantin's bemused guests, except Eszter Csákányi's dumpy, subtly ghastly Arkadina. She remains in her now centre-stage seat, superlatively hogging the limelight. Sándor Terhes' as the smoothie doctor, Dorn, is all the more shockingly uncaring and funny too when he directly flashes us a sardonic glance while patting Polina, his weeping bit-on-the-side.

At the same time, most of the acting would make Stanislavski weep with joy regarding its naturalistic detailing. This is one of the most quietly brilliant ensembles I have ever seen, with their tiniest gestures all painfully telling. The sensitivity to agonising unhappiness in everyday lives is extraordinarily acute. Schilling's major textual adjustment - having Konstantin symbolically smash a violin rather than shoot himself - did produce a somewhat confused, very long pause before the audience realised that this was the end. Also, the simultaneous translation was awful, drawled through your headphones by a woman who sounded as if she'd been lobotomised. Really you needed to go twice, and just listen the second time round to the passionate, grief-cracked Hungarian voices. Sadly, though, this was only on for four nights.

As for Prayer Room, the writer Shan Khan's 2001 Edinburgh play, Office, was sorely substandard and his second is no better, even if Angus Jackson's production includes commendable performances (Hannah Watkins, Iddo Goldberg and Tolga Safer) alongside 2D caricatures. Khan's topicality is obvious. When Muslim, Jewish and Christian college students are obliged to share one devotional room, they start getting territorial and violently aggressive, with the tolerant and innocent drawn into the fray. But, oh boy, Khan's writing is theatrically wooden whenever he drops out of droll Asian-Cockney slang. This premiere actually isn't timely either, after the Fringe Festival's glut of terrorism plays - several of them far better than this.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

'Prayer Room': last show today, 0131 473 2000

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