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BWW Review: THREE SISTERS, Union Theatre

Like the astringent smack of that healthy 2017 new year's resolution abiding smoothie you've just spun up, the bitter beautiful prose of Anton Chekhov arrives at the Union Theatre to cleanse you after the indulgence of all those Christmas shows and set up another year full of lean theatrical wellbeing.

It's a theme director, Phil Willmott, picks up in his programme note, suggesting that the timeless quality of Chekhov's classic makes a good fit with these uncertain and (for us with a least one foot in the newly vilified "metropolitan elite") suddenly unanchored times. It's a good point well made.

The three sisters (and one weak as post-Christmas party piss brother) live in a big house (like 80s popsters Five Star) miles from anywhere on the bleak steppes of Russia, with only a garrison of soldiers to break the provincial gloom of the peasantry. Clever, bored, married-too-young Masha has her head turned by the brigade's Commanding Officer, Vershinin; harassed, soon-to-be spinster, Olga just needs to get through each day at the local school; and flighty, flirty Irina dreams of Moscow, as she is pursued by men whom she likes a little but can never love. Meanwhile, brother Andrey is gambling away the family's assets and being dominated by his ambitious and ruthless wife, Natasha. It doesn't sound like it will end well - and it doesn't.

Willmott gets excellent performances from his cast. Tom Malmed is a ball of sexual frustration as Irina's doomed betrothed Baron Tusenbach, nicely offset by Ashley Russell's strong but silent type, Vershinin. Francesca Burgoyne successfully sheds any sympathy we may have had for her after the sisters' early snobbish dressing down of Natasha, by being utterly horrendous towards everyone, including Benjamin Chandler, who makes us want to shake Andrey out of his lethargy.

Celine Abrahams gives us an Olga who is too decent to be anything other than dedicated to duty, though she bares her teeth in a rousing defence of ageing family retainer, Anfisa, in a scene that draws a fatal fault line between the upper middle class sisters and the lower middle class Natasha, leading to a clear delineation of power in the household. Molly Crookes' Irina has the girlishness of a teen early on. but is broken by the end, aged before her time, the shoulders slumped, the heart in neither career nor love life and even mythical, magical Moscow's charms fade. Ivy Corbin flashes eyes and burns with Masha's anger at her self-created trap of a marriage, but even she can't break the chains of responsibility until it's too late. Even when she's not speaking, Corbin dominates the stage, stewing and seething and sexy.

This version is Tracy Letts' 2009 adaptation that strips back some of the Russian over-complications (name days, patronymics etc) and focuses the story without losing Chekhov's extraordinary insight into human dilemmas. I'd suggest making the passage of time between scenes a little more explicit to help first-timers (though I'm guessing many in the stalls will be familiar with the story), but Willmott's direction avoids toppling into soap opera signalling of emotional upheaval through shouting - for which I was grateful (because Three Sisters can go that way).

Chekhov never fails to deliver the darkest of dark comedy and I was smiling and wincing throughout the two hours running time. But he also penetrates the heart of the human condition, a quality that leads to his plays being revived continually. And, with all the sisters' education, privilege and dedication to duty being swept aside by a coarse outsider who simply wanted it more and didn't care how she got it, it's as timely today as ever it was. Dead at 44, the Russian's work is so dazzlingly brilliant that it is certain to live forever. This production is as good an entry point as any.

Three Sisters is at the Union Theatre until 4 February.

Photo Scott Rylander.

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From This Author Gary Naylor