Chekhov's 1901 play Three Sisters was reputedly inspired by the Bronte sisters. Writer Blake Morrison, director Barry Rutter and Northern Broadsides have made this notion theatre-flesh, creating a new work about the Brontes, fitted onto Chekhov's template.
As someone once said of The Last Temptation of Christ, we know how this story ends, but Northern Broadsides make it an interesting journey. Three world-renowned writers in-waiting, a Victorian parsonage, a love-struck, debt-stuck brother and the compulsion to write and be published.
The Chekov's in the satellites: suitors and neighbours - the doctor, cleric, school master and Bramwell's mistress, Mrs Robinson (it's true). There are some lovely moments of wit, largely delivered by Sophia Di Martino as gloomy, headstrong Emily ("I like gloom. It bucks me up").
It's a large ensemble, with Rebecca Hutchinson (Anne), Sophia de Martino (Emily) and Catherine Kinsella (Charlotte) providing a watchable centre, with Eileen O'Brien (Tabby), Marc Parry (William, the curate) and John Branwell (the doctor) providing excellent, rounded character support.
While there are some pleasing parallels (not least the sense of space and desperate landscape and the traps of social confines) the connecting lines between Chekhov and Brontes are not always smooth. Some of the social background is heavily referenced but not integrated or exploited (e.g. local riots, Chartism) and the great universals floated by Chekhov (the constant hunt for life's meaning, for example) feel weighted down by the biographical - the women's portentous coughs in the closing scenes punctuate their wishes for a long, happy future.
This is a good, traditional and solid piece of theatre, much enjoyed by the Tobacco Factory audience (a space that works beautifully in the round), giving a warm look into the day-to-day life - some real, some Chekhov-ised, of three remarkable women who were determined to speak and be heard.