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Review: Three Sisters (Vaudeville Theatre)

Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg arrives in London with Chekhov's classic

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Ekaterina Tarasova in Three Sisters
(© Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg)

The British theatre scene is hardly short of Three Sisters productions. Earlier this year, Cordelia Lynn updated the Chekhov perennial for a lamplit, contemporary-feeling show at London's Almeida Theatre. And Barber Shop Chronicles creator Inua Ellams transplants the Prozorov siblings to Nigeria at the National in December. Yet this outing from the Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg still feels crisp enough to be vital viewing – and not only because it's staged in the original Russian. (With English subtitles, of course, for those whose Russian is a bit rusty.)

As ever, the sisters – Olga, Masha and Irina – pine for Moscow from the monotonous isolation of their family home in a remote garrison town. Olga's wrung-out by her job as a schoolteacher. Masha is fed up and doesn't care who knows it; living up to middle siblings' reputation for being difficult, she's all acidic put-downs and attention-seeking hauteur. Only the youngest, Irina, remains optimistic that she'll be able to master her fate and pursue a more meaningful existence elsewhere.

Lev Dodin's direction cuts to the heart of the play's addictive mix of quiet sadness and offbeat humour – as does Alexander Borovsky's simple but elegant design. At the start, the Prozorov house lurks at the back of the stage, while the sisters pass the time with various soldiers and love-interests in a claustrophobic huddle around the steps in the front. But as the acts roll on, the building eerily shifts forward; time is passing – and the sisters' hopes for the future are stealthily subsumed by their dreary destiny. Some of the most affecting visual moments come when the family curl up, each haloed by golden backlighting, in separate window seats. Smart staging: it nods to their simultaneous solidarity and isolation.

Despite playing the slimmest of the sister roles, Irina Tychinina's composed, humane performance as Olga is one of the most vivid. By the end of the play, she seems to have been emotionally disembowelled; her dead-eyed glare in the final scenes will remain etched on my eyelids for weeks to come. Kseniya Rappoport captures Masha's mischief and mania, while Ekaterina Tarasova makes a dignified yet vulnerable Irina. Although the rest of the cast aren't quite in the same league, Sergey Vlasov nails the almost offensive ebullience displayed by Masha's husband. Meanwhile, Ekaterina Kleopina is suitably grating as Natasha, the sister-in-law and housemate from hell who repeatedly mistakes light five minute chats for opportunities to inform her family that they'll have to vacate their room to make way for her tiresome infant, Bobik.

It's not a perfect production. I would have liked to get a deeper sense of the sister's emotional progression. And more could have been made of the trio's affection and insularity.

Nevertheless, this is an impassioned and suitably morose Three Sisters that, in showcasing the play's knife-sharp exploration of the human condition, explains why it's never far from our stages.