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Theatre review: Three Sisters, Almeida

PUBLISHED: 14:52 17 April 2019 | UPDATED: 14:58 17 April 2019

Pearl Chanda, Ria Zmitrowicz, Shubham Saraf and Lois Chimimba in Three Sisters. Picture: Marc Brenner.

Pearl Chanda, Ria Zmitrowicz, Shubham Saraf and Lois Chimimba in Three Sisters. Picture: Marc Brenner.

Archant

Fresh off Olivier Award wins for Summer and Smoke, director Rebecca Frecknall and actress Patsy Ferran reunite at the Almeida - bringing a similarly expressive approach to Chekhov as they did to Tennessee Williams.

Rather than pianos, this time this stage is filled with chairs. As the Moscow-born siblings – stuck in the provincial garrison town where their late father was stationed – are gradually stripped of their hopes of escape, the stage is stripped bare, until (with a climactic flourish) their rural immersion is complete.

It's visually engaging, but slightly at odds with Cordelia Lynn's semi-update, which mixes the 1901 original's lyricism with frank modern vernacular. The latter does pull the drama into contemporary experience, but makes the three-hour production feel too verbose; the existential musing becomes repetitive, rather than revealing.

Most effective is the portrait of the central trio, who really convince as bickering sisters – that push-pull of affection and exasperation, support and limitation. Ria Zmitrowicz's Irina hates being babied, but also hides under blankets; Pearl Chanda's Masha is marvellously stroppy, then completely felled by first love; and Ferran's toiling Olga always seems too young for whatever position of care is foisted upon her.

That arrested development (they still have 'Nanny') is well contrasted with Lois Chimimba's aggressive, ruthlessly practical sister-in-law Natasha. There are strong turns too from Alan Williams' alcoholic doctor; Peter McDonald's eloquent Vershinin, yearning for a better future; and Elliot Levey's bumbling classics teacher, who – as he realises just how unhappy Masha is with him – switches from comic relief to stark despair.

There are striking moments – a rousing jig, lamp-lit intimacy, violent grief – but the production feels caught between traditional and daring. The opening sequence expresses more in movement than much of Lynn's text; a more radical update might have given Frecknall and her excellent company more space to play.

3/5 stars.

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