As a co-production with Liverpool’s theatres to celebrate that great city’s European Capital of Culture year, 3 Sisters on Hope Street, Hampstead’s re-working of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, is less than an ideal advertisement: the one pure Scouser in the play is a coarse little butcher’s daughter with social pretensions, and the eponymous siblings can’t wait to get out of the place – and “home” to New York. There are also racist riots and a shortage of luxury items.
Hope Street is a straight line of Georgian terraced houses running between the city’s two cathedrals, as well as the home of the Everyman Theatre, the Philharmonic Concert Hall and, immediately after the last war, the Lasky family in this clever re-write “after Chekhov” by playwright Diane Samuels and actress and former EastEnderTracy-Ann Oberman.
But a big city like Liverpool is not an ideal equivalent of a remote country town. Lindsay Posner’s production, too, is curiously bereft of any real Chekhovian intensity. The birthday girl Rita (Samantha Robinson) is a shrill, lazily articulated doll-like creature who switches with unconvincing ardour from a desire to go to New York to a commitment to kibbutz life with her idealistic American fiancé Teddy “Tush” Gold (Russell Bentley).
That swerve in the new play does not survive the absurdity of the offstage “duel” between Tush and his sullen compatriot Solly (Gerard Monaco), who has been irrevocably damaged by participating in the liberation of Dachau: Philip Voss’ cantankerous, queenly old doctor Nate Weinberg follows his maudlin third act outburst – the riots have replaced Chekhov’s fire – with a morose entrance in a bloody shirt ... Rita has hardly absorbed the news when she’s planning her trip to the new state of Israel anyway.
If the play doesn’t quite manage this dual pull of the old country and the new state, the acting certainly doesn’t. There’s an almost startling lack of tenderness throughout, and I never believed anything anyone was saying. Finbar Lynch’s Vince, for instance – the new version of Vershinin the lady-killer, commander of the visiting battery – is a thin, bald, dour character who exercises a mysteriously shattering power over Suzan Sylvester’s miserably unfulfilled May (the new Masha).
Also, what kind of sisters are these three? By no stretch of the imagination are Rita, May and Anna Francolini’s pinched and often inaudible Gertie peas from anything like the same pod. Only Jennie Stoller’s matriarchal Auntie Bell (Chekhov’s nurse) carries something of the old generation with her, and that’s laid on a bit with a trowel and Yiddisher phrases.
Daisy Lewis is the upstart Debbie and she at least manages the transition from social gawkiness to arriviste ghastliness, while Ben Caplan’s withdrawn, softly spoken Arnold (the sisters’ brother) does suggest a world of married non-bliss even if he doesn’t fully explain his recurring cough as a sign of consumption or just domestic nerves.