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A CurtainUp London London Review
Three Sisters, Hope Despair and Vodka

Father bludgeoned us with education. — Andrei
Three Sisters, Hope Despair and Vodka
Poppy Miller as Olga, Romola Garai as Masha and Clare Dunne as Irina (Helen Maybanks)
Three Sisters wittily subtitled in Filter and Sean Holmes' version as Hope, Despair and Vodka is a fresh look at Chekhov's wonderful play about the three young women longing to be back in Moscow. Of course we know that Moscow would not really be the answer but is a Shangri-La, although it is true that society for them there would have to have been better than that of a provincial garrison town. As one of the sisters says, "When father was alive there used to be 30 or 40 officers at one of our name-day parties . . . now there's one and a half men here."

The scene set in the opening act where they are celebrating the youngest daughter, Irina's (Irish actor Clare Dunne) name day seems tedious but it is going to get worse. For Masha (Romola Garai) married to a much older man, a pedantic Latin quoting schoolmaster, it is boredom which weighs her down as well as his infuriating forgiveness. For Olga (Poppy Miller) it is the routine of her life as a school mistress and the advent of her inevitable, childless spinsterhood. For their brother Andrei (Ferdy Roberts) his infatuation with the dreadful Natasha (Gemma Saunders) will bring marriage, children, adultery and humiliation instead of the academic career he craves, and the happiness he hopes for when he proposes to Natasha.

All the elements are there in this bare staged, post modernist production with the functional sound decks on show and stage hands taking the odd walk on role. There is modern music and white noise to convey the passing of time. In modern dress, or rather a mish mash of ancient and modern costume, it doesn't matter what things look like because what is important here is what people feel. And this is where Filter's production scores highly. All the family are balanced, well intentioned characters with weaknesses that are merely foibles. No-one except Natasha is villified (although maybe the Doctor (Nigel Cooke) is the least appealing with his drunken behaviour). And even then it is Natasha's treatment of the old servant Anfisa (Sandra Voe) that produces a sharp intake of breath from the audience at the shocking disregard she has for the feelings of the loyal, old servant. In other productions Andrei can appear selfish too but Ferdy Roberts changes that. His Andrei is very human, not an unkind brother but as much a victim of his greedy wife, as his sisters are. The scene when Andrei tries to soothe Natasha is played off stage, with the audience eavesdropping on the ridiculous coo-cooing words, not something any of us would want overheard. This directorial device gives the audience the same experience as the other players in the dining room. We share the emotion and the distance from it as outsiders.

Vasily Solynov (Mark Theodore) who, in a duel, will ruin the compromise choice Irina makes, is portrayed as an obsessive, trying to remove "the smell of death on his hands" with the frequent use of a hand sanitiser. Like someone with an annoying personality condition, throughout the party he chucks peanuts at his rival Tuzenbach (Jonathan Broadbent). Poppy Miller's serious Olga keeps the family together while Masha falls for Vershinin (John Lightbody), again someone trapped in unhappiness by circumstance rather than a philanderer as he is sometimes played. During the play we see Irina age visibly and Clare Dunne is never cloying but sincere. Her decision to marry the Baron is pragmatic as she confesses she has never been in love in her life.

Romola Garai as Masha parting from her lover Vershinin is heart rending. Her performance is very still and all the stronger and more affecting for that, as a beauty, she sits and waits, or lies on the bed in the attic, exhausted after her efforts in helping during the fire. I very much liked the final scene when Masha takes the hands of her sisters after those speeches about the present being hideous and manages to find a note of optimism, in the hope that their sufferings will contribute to the happiness of those who will come after them.

Filter's Three Sisters, with some amazing performances, captures the essence of Chekhov with a freshness of purpose.

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Three Sisters, Hope Despair and Vodka
Written by Anton Chekhov
In a aversion by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Sean Holmes and Filter

Starring: Romola Garai, Poppy Miller, Ferdy Roberts, John Lightfoot, Clare Dunne
With: Paul Brennen, Jonathan Broadbent, Jim Bywater, Nigel Cooke, David Judge, Gemma Saunders, Mark Theodore, Sandra Voe, Paul Woodson
Design: Jon Bausor
Lighting: Paule Constable
Composer and Sound: Chris Branch
Running time: Two hours 45 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0871 2211729
Booking to 20th February 2010
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 25th January 2010 performance at the Lyric Theatre, King Street, Hammersmith, London W6 0QL (Tube:Hammersmith)

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