Three Sisters at the Union Theatre – Review

Three SistersIt began well enough, this production of Three Sisters, even if the purists would have been angered within the first minute, with what some productions term a ‘name day’ and others a ‘saint’s day’ rendered here as a ‘birthday’, in the Western European meaning of the term, as opposed to its Russian original. It is a minor point, and the spirit of the play, as Michael Frayn points out in the notes to his own previous translation, should “take precedence over exactitude”. I do wonder, though, how someone without any prior knowledge of Three Sisters would take to this new version by Tracy Letts. Suspending my disbelief at the door of the Union Theatre, I found myself having to rely on what I knew of the play already, which to me is rather disappointing.

The first of the play’s four acts is well-paced for a contemporary audience, but successive acts are each slower than the one before. The play’s finale came suddenly, and caught me unawares, with just Olga (Celine Abrahams) with the iconic last line, “If only we could know!” on stage, without her two siblings. It seemed odd: who is ‘we’ when there is only one person there? Elsewhere, while there is some sense of emotional detachment between characters despite close physical interaction (ahem), it doesn’t always convince. Francesca Burgoyne’s Natasha could have been rather more vocally vicious than she was. Part of me is grateful that the other characters, and thus the audience, are largely spared the hair dryer treatment. But with so much going on, there’s too much subtlety, to the point where the production struggled to retain my attention.

Some of the pauses in this show slowed what could otherwise have been a more intense performance: these pauses were so long the dramatic effect of them was lessened, while simultaneously they were too short to be Pinteresque. I am not sure, either, whether quite so much off-stage action was necessary, particularly for a show presented in the round, a format that normally leads to audiences being able to see more than a proscenium arch view would provide, rather than less. In the third act, a piece of simultaneous dialogue felt like two people speaking at once, such that neither could be understood properly. And in the fourth act, some background music that repeatedly permeated through became increasingly irritating and added little, if anything, to the plot or the dialogue.

Despite all that, this production is not a flop. JP Turner puts in a fine performance as Chebutykin, comparable to Laurence Olivier in the same role in the 1970 film version of the play. Anfisa (Corinna Marlowe) is compelling as the family’s nanny, loved by the three sisters but loathed by Natasha. There’s something remarkably topical about someone who has been resident in one place for three decades suddenly being concerned about possibly having to relocate.

The three sisters themselves, the aforementioned Olga, plus Masha (Ivy Corbin) and Irina (Molly Crookes), put in strong performances too. Crookes stood out for me, drawing out a multi-layered character capable of being altogether insightful and yet altogether silly, sometimes in the same scene.

The various army officers add much pleasure and philosophy to the show. The actors all do very well with what they are given, truth be told, and the production is a reasonable effort at a fresh treatment of this modern classic.

3 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

In a UK premiere, one of America’s most celebrated contemporary playwrights, Tracy Letts, hones and focuses Chekhov’s depiction of three young Russian women, in a back-water town, whose dreams are eroded by a series of encounters with guests, lovers, family and the proletariat.

It was first performed in 1900 to reflect an increasingly obsolete leisured class, struggling to find a purpose in an age of great social change. At this precise moment in time, when the intelligentsia have become irrelevant at the ballot box it couldn’t feel more pertinent.

Refreshingly, amidst a crowded market of Chekhov adaptations, Tracy Letts, the Tony award-winning actor and Pulitzer prize-winning author of stage and screen hits August:Osage County, Bug, Superior Donuts and Killer Joe, makes no radical changes to the setting, story or characters.

Instead, he brings a directness of motive and linguistic clarity that only a brilliant actor and an undisputed master of contemporary drama can offer.

Olga – Celine Abrahams
Masha – Ivy Corbin
Rode – Will Henry
Solyony – Hugo Nicholson
Chebutykin – J. P. Turner
Natasha – Francesca Burgoyne
Irina – Molly Crookes
Tusenbach – Tom Malmed
Kulygin – Steven Rodgers
Ferapont – Lawrence Werber
Andrey – Benjamin Chandler
Fedotik – Jonathan James
Anfisa – Corinna Marlowe
Vershinin – Ashley Russell

Director – Phil Willmott
Costume Designer – Penn O’Gara
Assistant Director -Nastazja Domaradzka
Production Manager – Toby Burbidge
Casting Director – Adam Braham
Production Photographer -Scott Rylander

BYAnton Chekhov
DIRECTED BYPhil Willmott
DATES4th January – 4th February 2017


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