Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, London – until 14 April 2018
It only takes one look at Odin Corie’s set – a light, sophisticated and immaculately decorated family room, which makes the intimate Brockley Jack Studio look far bigger than it is – to understand that with their third foray into the Russian classics, Arrows and Traps means business. Following the success of their Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment in 2016 and ’17 respectively, the multi Offie-nominated company has now turned its attention to Chekhov, with a new adaptation of Three Sisters written and directed by Ross McGregor.
Set in a Russian garrison town, the play immediately introduces the eponymous three sisters: Olga (the responsible one), Masha (the passionate one) and Irina (the romantic one). One year on from the death of their father, all three yearn to find some joy and purpose in a life that’s become relentlessly dull and ordinary. They believe the answer lies in their long-held dream of returning to Moscow – and yet, four years later, we find them exactly where they began, having moved precisely nowhere.
This inertia means that not only have they not found happiness; they’re also significantly worse off, thanks to their brother Andrei (Spencer Lee Osborne). He’s led them into ruin with his gambling habit and disastrous marriage to Natasha (Hannah Victory) – a local girl they all once looked down on, but who now rules the roost with an iron fist and has, little by little, driven them out of their own home.
The substantial cast of 14 is uniformly excellent. Cornelia Baumann never disappoints, and she hits the target again with her fragile and lonely Olga, trapped in a public service job she never wanted because she’s too nice to say no. At the other end of the scale, Claire Bowman is full of uncompromising fire as the sharp-tongued Masha; her disdain for her comically ridiculous husband Fyodor (Stephen MacNeice, whose plaintive insistence that he’s a happy man becomes harder and harder to believe) is matched only by her passion for the equally unhappily married Colonel Vershinin (Toby Wynn-Davies). Somewhere in the middle, Victoria Llewellyn balances the two out as the youngest sister Irina, soaring from ecstatic highs to desperate lows in her search for an idealistic true love that seems doomed to end in tragedy.
The production also makes interesting use of music, with musical director Elliot Clay combining sweeping orchestral tracks with a more modern twist provided by guitar-toting soldiers Vladimir and Alexei (Freddie Cambanakis and Ashley Cavender), and – in a rare moment of joyful abandon – a traditional Russian singalong that might just have you reaching for the vodka, and will almost certainly get stuck in your head, possibly forever. (Just to make sure, they sing it twice.)
At 2 hours and 45 minutes it’s not a short play, but we easily become invested enough in the characters that the story remains compelling, and under Ross McGregor’s direction it never feels like the pace is too slow – all the more impressive when you consider this is, by its very nature, a play where the characters talk a lot but don’t do much. Five years of consistent excellence from Arrows and Traps have set the bar incredibly high – but while Three Sisters perhaps lacks a little of the cinematic grandeur we’ve seen in the company’s earlier work, this is still without doubt a stylish and beautifully acted piece of storytelling.