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Three Sisters (Tour - Salford)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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By the time we arrive at our seats there is already a figure playing the piano with his back to us - so far, so normal. Over the next few minutes though, most of the cast take their places and begin to move around but the chatting does not subside. Are we waiting for them or are they waiting for us? The piano stops and the lights go off: Ah, I see. The play is starting now.

Filter's version of Anton Chekov's play (with an adaptation by Christopher Hampton), does not shy away from such uneasy moments. There are plenty of dramatic pauses mid-conversation and the lights stay on between scenes, whilst the actors themselves move the props and furniture. Filter have been lauded for their physicality, which is used by great effect by director Sean Holmes. He is not afraid to crowd everyone around a dinner table, half the backs towards us or indulge in a little vodka induced singing and dancing.

The three sisters in question are Irina, Masha and Olga Prozonov (Clare Dunne, Romola Garai and Poppy Miller), bored of provincial Russia and desperate to go back to Moscow, to really live for once. For the sisters, particularly the youngest Irina, these two concepts are one and the same. To pass the time, we have affairs, a destructive fire, a romance-fuelled duel and plenty of 'theorising'.

The latter does get a little heavy and repetitive at times and perhaps is better pondered curled up with the text and with care but the actors' certainly give their all to the long speeches. The characters are preoccupied with the values of work, if they will ever be happy and the chances of their suffering living on in posterity - the kind of meta-theatrical conceit that almost has you shouting 'Yes, we hear you."

Some performances do border on being overdone but this is drama, after all. Indeed, Jonathan Broadbent convinces as Nikolai Tuzenbach, the work-shy Baron who has been in love with Irina for five years but "can't quite get used to it." Nigel Cooke's drunken Doctor Ivan Chebutykin, who has forgotten all he knew, serves up comedic existentialism delightfully and Ferdy Roberts as the Prozonov brother Andrei shows impressive range: from nervous, arty academic to gambling, despairing husband who settles for being a member of the local council, all in just over two hours.

Finally, a word on Filter's trademark use of sound. They manage not to fall into the trap of making the method too gimmicky: not just when Andrei and his wife-to-be Natasha are overheard by the rest of the cast having a, shall we say, private discussion but indeed the microphones intensify the drama. Theatre can have its quiet moments too and it is these that are given added power.

Those who are not familiar with experimental theatre may not enjoy the mash-ups of modern music between scenes, the distracting sound of ticking or waiting for a kettle to boil ("I'll show you a new kind of patience...") but then again Filter are not interested in the audience's comfort zone. If they continue like this, they may just make everything else you watch seem positively mediocre.

- Sophie Charara

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