BWW Reviews: THREE SISTERS, Southwark Playhouse, April 8 2014

Russia is always there.

It looms over its old Empire - no Georgian will have been surprised by events in Crimea - and it dominates its people's art and literature. The Bear never sleeps for long.

Anya Reiss has adapted a play by the man who wrote The Cherry Orchard, and updated it for the Apple age. That creates some problems that she doesn't satisfactorily resolve: but it's theatre - I can live with that. She also expunges - or tries to expunge - Russia, but I'm afraid that I couldn't quite believe that.

Why do Olga, Masha and Irina - three beautiful, intelligent, confident women - eulogise London so insistently? It's not Ireland nor Rome nor even Liverpool - London is a city not a myth. Surely the beads and baubles of Bond Street that might tempt an Emma Bovary don't lure these sophisticates? Nor is there any sign that it's the bright lights of the West End or karaoke nights in the East End (though Masha does a very good Common People) that calls to them. And not only is there no history of exile as punishment in England, there's no equivalent of "Mother Russia" either - at least not outside meetings involving the more swivel-eyed of UKIP politicians. The few people who ever feel nostalgic about London just visit it - and by the time they've cleared immigration at Heathrow, the magic has usually faded. Can't the girls just log on to Expedia and book a trip? It seems not.

The sisters are marking time in a hot, horrid, hostile country (Syria?), where their deceased father served as an ambassador, and they pine for "home": a home they never really knew. Their intellectual (that is, useless) brother is spending the inheritance playing online poker (though nobody seems to use social media or Skype to bridge the distance to England) and the small expat community furnishes them with lovers, a husband and admirers - and, frighteningly, a vision of their own futures. As affairs of state and affairs of the heart come to the boil, mental and physical claustrophobia sets in. Something Must Be Done...

Director Russell Bolam coaxes three tremendous performances from the sisters. Olivia Hallinan belies her Lizzie Siddal hair by holding the family together, her schoolteacher's job a perfect fit to her sensible, tough-loving personality. Emily Taafe, as the hot-blooded Masha, is at her best in her chaste pursuit of the dashing philosopher-soldier Vershinen (a remarkably non-aged Paul McGann) - the look in her eye saying everything about what she thinks of him (and of her husband). Holliday Grainger's Irina changes most over the years of the play, her mischeivous humour stretched to breaking point by her isolation from the men she knows would make her life whole. Emily Dobbs is no less worthy of praise as their sister-in-law Natasha, whose uncultured gaucheness hardens into a steely selfishness that defeats her husband (a mooching Thom Tuck) and his sisters - she doesn't even spare the servants.

There's much to admire in this production, but the slow second half gives too much time to wonder why the sisters are so stuck, so cut off, even as Dr Chebutykin reads today's copy of The Times! Long before the climactic close, the Russian Bear had awoken in my mind and demanded my attention. Credible performances examining universal problems of the human condition, yes - but I'm afraid that I just couldn't believe that it was happening, right there, right now and not back then - in Russia.

Three Sisters continues at the Southwark Playhouse until 3 May.

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From This Author Gary Naylor