The play takes place in the provincial army town in which the Prozorov sisters and their brother Andrey live. Olga (Sophie Ward), the oldest, is a high school teacher; Masha (Janie Dee) is unhappily married to a teacher in the same school; and Irina (Susannah Wise) and Andrey (Richard Henders) have dreams of moving back to Moscow. Vershinin (Michael Siberry) the new Army commander, joins the group of military hangers-on around the Prozorov home, a group that also includes the ineffectual doctor, Chebutykin (amusingly played by David Ryall), who lets everyone know that he has forgotten all the medicine he ever knew.
As time passes, Andrey marries Natasha (strikingly performed by Hermione Gulliford) and is reduced to a gambling-addictive basket case, while Natasha has babies and takes over the household, becoming a manipulative and sinister gorgon in the process. Masha has a romantic affair with Vershinin and Natasha commits adultery with the school administrator. In the end, just before the Army moves, Irina's fiancee (Angus Wright) is killed in a duel.
Three Sisters should be a beautiful play of character, relationship, and motivation, exploring the gap between hope and fulfilment. Chekhov described the play as a comedy. In Friel's production, the comedy has been broadened to the disadvantage of the underlying sadness which should touch the audience's soul. Although under Loveday Ingram's direction, the second act has some fire and spirit, the first is pure tedium, with insufficient distinction being drawn between the characters of the protagonists.
Only Wise, optimistic in the beginning, reconciled to compromise and disaster at the end, strikes a chord. Dee has one good scene, breaking down into hysterics at the departure of her lover but Ward is a cipher throughout, bringing little of the unhappy spinsterish schoolmarm to the part.
Further, the claustrophobic atmosphere which should be pervasive is completely missing in Colin Falconer's set, wide open and art deco-ish in the first act and dark in the second. Presumably it is meant to represent the lightness of hope and concluding disillusionment. I am afraid it does not work. There is a lot Irish in this adaptation but precious little feeling for Mother Russia.
There are several, well-drawn supporting performances, particularly from Ian Gelder as the cuckolded and ineffective schoolteacher but as an ensemble piece, the show does not work nearly as well as the season's earlier The Winslow Boy, by far the best thing Chichester has produced this year.
What the production does do however, even in this less than stirring showing, is demonstrate what an influential playwright Chekhov was. A hundred years on, his signature can still be seen in the work of Pinter, Miller, Albee, and yes, even Sondheim.