Review - Three Sisters at the Almeida Theatre

Our critics rating: 
Date: 
Wednesday, 17 April, 2019
Review by: 

Hot off their Olivier wins for their revelatory reclamation of Tennessee Williams's Summer and Smoke, director Rebecca Frecknall and actor Patsy Ferran reunite now at the same Almeida Theatre for the more familiar Chekhov play, Three Sisters. But this time an endlessly wintry play succumbs, in this version, to directorial smoke and mirrors.

Instead of a bank of pianos that dominated Summer and Smoke, this time the stage is set with a single piano, but a whole lot of chairs that will be constantly rearranged. It begins with a scene-setting silent prologue, where the three title women are at the funeral of their father; cue much moping. And that, of course, will be the pattern across the next three hours.

The play itself begins a year later, at the 20th birthday celebration for the youngest sister, Irina, and we soon find out that they variously long to return to Moscow (where they grew up but left behind 11 years previously). The risk with Chekhovian plays about a paralysing sense of boredom and ennui is that they can fill you with the same senses as you watch them; and so it did with me.

On the one hand, Frecknall imbues it with a lot of alternately folksy and detailed naturalism; some of the actors are spot-on here, like Annie Firbank's wonderful old retainer Anfisa, Elliot Levey's cuckolded but still loyal husband to the second sister, Peter McDonald as that sister's lover and the especially starkly characterised family friend and doctor of Alan Williams.

But on the other, there's also an over-ripe series of theatrical stylisations at play, and desperately affected performances from two of the three siblings that pushed me away from them rather than towards them. With Pearl Chanda's Masha projecting a curious monotone delivery, and Ria Zmitrowicz's Irina full of irritating expressions, there is no instinctive connection between them; and Cordelia Lynn's ripe, colloquial translation does them no favours in the subtlety department.

But the crushing Chekhovian sense of lives destined to be unlived is more arrestingly caught by Ferran's schoolteacher Olga, proving yet again what a marvellous actor she is. Unfortunately, however, lightning hasn't struck twice here.

Three Sisters is at the Almeida Theatre until 1st June.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

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