Three Sisters at the Almeida Theatre review ****

Three Sisters

Almeida Theatre, 25th April 2019

It creeps up on you this Three Sisters. As with her feted take on Tennessee Williams’s neglected Summer and Smoke last year, Almeida Associate Director Rebecca Frecknall is unafraid of letting the play take its time to unfold and delivers a similar, dreamy quality to events in this Chekhov staple. And, with Cordelia Lynn’s loose-limbed, idiomatic, yet poetic, adaptation, (draw from Helen Rappaport’s literal translation), and Hildegard Bechtler’s barely-there set and timeless costumes, (if there had been some old rope lying around I would have guessed she were the taking the p*ss), she has some very willing accomplices. This is a Three Sisters pretty much stripped of context or artifice, no birch trees or big frocks here, where we are forced to focus entirely on the relationships between the characters. Time, space and place, and even action at some points, are erased to just leave people, their language and their interaction (or lack thereof – there aren’t many great listeners is Chekhov).

Fair enough. This is, after all a play about (father and mother-less) three sisters and their dodgy brother (I’ve always wondered if Anton C had a Bronte thing going on), bored sh*tless and pointlessly dreaming of returning to the buzz of metropolitan Moscow. And marriage. And its frustrations. And parenthood. And its frustrations. And old age. And its frustrations. And work. And its frustrations. And money. And its frustrations. And unrequited love and its frustrations. And idealism. And its frustrations. And denial. And its frustrations. And sacrifice. And emotional manipulation. And politics. And class. And knowledge. And drink. In fact the whole meaning of life gig. There’s a party. A bunch of soldiers come. There’s a duel. Then they go. A clock gets smashed. A piano doesn’t get played. And, in the background, there is the march of history with the first Russian Revolution just 5 years away from when AC completed TS.

Patsy Ferran is back with Ms Frecknall after her award winning performance in S&S but as Olga the oldest, unmarried, sister and the self sacrificing glue that holds the family, just about together. She is mesmeric but actually has less to say and do than Pearl Chanda as Masha or Ria Zmitrowicz as the youngest Irina. Here Irina veers towards needy, self-obsessed, Gen Z-er, reinforcing the abstracted nature of the interpretation. In any one else’s hands this might not have worked but Ria Zmitrowicz is good enough to get away with it, For me though Pearl Chanda as the sardonic Masha is the pick of the three. Masha is the engine room of the play, the catalyst for its sharp humour and for the changes in the direction of the meandering plot. Her infatuation with Peter McDonald’s solemn philosophising widower Lieutenant Vershinin, needs to mix a genuine passion with a sort of bored, going through the motions. And she needs to bait her cuckolded Latin teacher husband Kulygin who knows exactly what is going on. Elliot Levy’s portrayal of Kulygin certainly captured his foolishness and compulsion to deflect tension with humour but not so much his underlying sadness and yearning for Olga.

The other central female character is Natasha, (another precise performance by a favourite of mine Lois Chimimba), who goes from gauche, brittle servant to imperious lady of the house after marrying the weak, vacillating Andrey (Freddie Meredith) who spunks the, limited, family fortune away gambling. Natasha, with her doting on her new born son Bobik, her antipathy to devoted family retainer Anfisa (Annie Firbank) and her pursuit of the unseen Protopopov, the head of the local council which Andrey joins to give him purpose, is here the most conventionally Chekhovian, at least from my memory of previous productions I have seen.

Mind you my memory is far from perfect as, for a few minutes in the second act I think I may have drifted off into The Cherry Orchard as I confused the confused Ferapont (Eric MacLennan) with Firs and the drunk army doctor Chetbutykin (Alan Williams) with Leonid Andreieveitch Gayev. Fortunately the ever attentive BB’s, who, along with my other guests, BUD, KCK and, of course, the SO, put me right and, as usual, saw in the production all that I missed. This is one of the joys of Chekhov. We all agreed on the overall tone of the play, in a word melancholic, and the direction of the plot, but because there is so much of themselves explicitly voiced by these complex characters we all focussed on different facets and dimensions off their existence, to then share our findings, albeit briefly, at the end.

Normally having set out situation and the arrivals, (there are always arrivals and a departure, after moreorless dramatic disclosures, in Chekhov), here the soldiers, including the unfortunate Baron Tuzenbach (Shubham Saraf) who pines for Irina, a troubled poet Solyony (Alexander Eliot), photographer Fedotik (Akshay Sharan) and Rode (Sonny Poon Tip), AC plays start to move through the gears drawing you in with major key attempted resolutions, before drifting off into a minor key conclusion. Not here though. Once the pace is set, at Irina’s name day party, it doesn’t really alter. It is as if the ominous, “keep calm and carry on even if it is all going to sh*t” ending feeds backwards into the rest of the play. But the absence of any distraction here, (dusky lighting and ambient sound by Jack Knowles and George Dennis are as non-specific as set and costumes), the intimacy of the space, the dedication of cast and director to the intention and, especially, Cordelia Lynn’s adaptation reeled us all in and held us there. It feels its length, just shy of three hours, and there are times when words, and only words, test the patience but ultimately it is a rewarding, if nebulous, experience.

For it is perfectly possible to never get out of a wistful second gear in Three Sisters. Nick Hytner did this in his 2003 NT production, despite a cracking cast. I plumped for this in contrast to Michael Blakemore’s West End production a few months later. Which appears to have been a mistake even though MB used a Christopher Hampton rather than a Michael Frayn adaptation. Alternatively, as Benedict Andrews proved at the Young Vic in 2012, it is possible to pimp it up, rev up to fifth gear and set out on the highway. That wasn’t perfect but it was bloody exciting in parts. I think I have seen a couple of other takes before record-keeping began, (yes I am a boy and I like making lists), but don’r remember them too well but there’s always the ennui.

I see the reviews are a bit all over the place. I can see why. In this case I think the only way to be sure is to see for yourself. And, if you like it, then mark down Rebecca Frecknall’s next outing. I suspect she will have her way with Ibsen one day soon. That could be very interesting. Meanwhile we have another Three Sisters in the pipeline. This time at the NT with Inua Ellams shifting the action to 1960s Nigeria and with Nadia Fall in the director’s chair. Neither, in my experience, reach for the soporific so this should be fun.

Parliament Square at the Bush Theatre review *****

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Parliament Square

Bush Theatre, 6th December 2017

As a few slightly unkind people have pointed out most of the “reviews” I somewhat sadly post on this “blog” are worse than useless as, more often than not, they appear after the event. Fair criticism but I can’t be toddling off to everything in the first week and I judge that most plays at least are best seen about two thirds of the way through. If they have flaws by then, they can be corrected where possible, or parts excised if really necessary. Cast can get the full measure of character and interaction, timings, pauses and rhythm honed. So I reckon I will get more for my money. So yah boo to you.

In this case though I am doing you a favour. Parliament Square runs until 6th January having first appeared at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, there are plenty of tickets left and full price is just twenty quid. The main space at the Bush is airy, comfy and sightlines are terrific. Oh and it is a mightily good play, with an excellent cast, skilfully directed by emerging talent Jude Christian. It has an absorbing central concept, just how far will an individual go to protest against injustice, is formally inventive, each of the three sections has some sort of clever conceit, and it is very well written by James Fritz. It is probably fair to say that the ending is a little too calculated. On the other hand the first section, in large part thanks to exceptional performances from Esther Smith and Lois Chimimba, is as exhilarating a piece of theatre as I have seen this year.

The play won the Judges Award for Playwriting in the Bruntwood Prize in 2015 and, like other plays I have seen which have been recognised here, it has that spark of invigorating originality from the outset which characterises the best new writing. Kat (Esther Smith) gets up one morning, skips work, leaves her husband and young daughter behind, gets the train to London, and commits a premeditated, dramatic, act of self sacrifice. Through the first act, Fifteen Seconds, she is, literally, coached by her conscience in the form of Lois Chimimba, (last seen by me in the unfairly maligned Common, in Peter Pan and in the excellent Diary of A Madman at the Gate). Lois Chimimba also doubles up as Jo, Kat’s sullen teenage daughter in the final act, Fifteen Years. I expect she, and Esther Smith, will go on to bigger, (and maybe even better), things as they are both superb actors.

Kat “fails” in her protest thanks to an intervention by Catherine, another excellent performance from Seraphina Beh. In the second act, Fifteen Steps, we see Kat, vividly and painfully, reconstructing her life and explaining why she did what she did to husband (a perplexed Damola Adelaja), mother (a bluntly perceptive Joanne Howarth) and health professionals (a sympathetic doctor in Jamie Zubairi and demanding physiotherapist in Kelly Hotten) as well as, eventually, to Catherine herself. The rest you can see for yourself.

James Fritz’s writing is very spare but very accurate. We never get to know exactly what Kat is protesting against but it doesn’t matter. We do get to contemplate why someone might choose this idealistic course to try to make a difference, why some might be inspired and some revulsed and why some might see this as futile and selfish. Jude Christian’s direction, (along with Fly Davis’s design, lighting from Jack Knowles, sound from Ben and Max Ringham and movement from Jennifer Jackson), is perfectly matched to the text. There is nothing extraneous here but the required ambiguity about the wisdom of such action is brilliantly conveyed.

James Fritz’s previous plays (The Fall, Comment is Free, Ross and Rachel and Four Minutes and Twelve Seconds) have garnered significant acclaim. I can see why. This is great theatre, well executed. You will come out likely annoyed by some of the behaviour of the characters, but, that is kind of the point given the subject. I think you will admire both writing and acting though. So get along to the Bush. Now.

Common at the National Theatre review ***

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Common

National Theatre, 28th June 2017

Is it possible to feel sorry for a play? Common has had some pretty poor reviews from the criterati and the public alike and there are tons of tickets left for the month or so left on the run.

Well I can’t pretend it isn’t without some pretty deep flaws but I didn’t think it was as bad as some have painted. As usual the Tourist has come late to the run. I gather it has been subject to some judicious cuts and it might be that the cast has become more attuned to playwright DC Moore’s curious and fruity language. It is a bit bonkers and a long way from what I had expected but I have seen much worse.

Our heroine Mary, played by Anne-Marie Duff who proves once again she is incapable of a having an off day at work, returns to her unspecified “home” after a spell in the den of iniquity that is London. Why she returns is never made clear. She might be seeking to exact revenge on her “brother” King (John Dagleish), she might be returning to her love, and “sister” Laura (a spirited Cush Jumbo), she might be seeking to help the ‘”villagers” succumb to the pernicious consequences of land enclosure. She has run ins with a bunch of Irish labourers, with the “Lord” (a perfectly cast though somewhat reticent Tim McMullan) and the Lord’s henchman Heron (Trevor Fox in full on Geordie) and with assorted villagers including the naive Eggy Tom (a touching Lois Chimimba). She, Mary, dies, is resurrected and then wreaks various revenges. Is she a con-woman, a seer, a harbinger? Who knows.

The programme some excellent essays. One is on the impact of enclosure on rural England from the late Medieval period, through the Tudors and, most aggressively, in the last C18 and early C19, when Common is set (1809). Capital has been screwing over labour, in more or less brutal ways, from the off and there is hardly anything more vital for theatre to examine. Another essay is on the importance of magic and spirits in the everyday existence of the “common people” alongside established religion and in the absence of universal education. These are interesting and important themes that the play seeks to explore. However, the slipperiness of the plot, and the focus on how the characters sound and look, serves to obscure these themes in my view.

DC Moore’s text in parts is written in a mangled, “rustic” English (think Yoda as a Wurzel) with plenty of profanity. Most of the criterati don’t seem to get on with this at all. I did. It takes a bit of getting used to but I think this, together with the lighting (Paula Constable deserves a special mention), the sound, the costumes, the set (though once again the Olivier stage offered too much space to the production) and the appropriate music written by Stephen Warbeck, all served to create an atmosphere which I think worked to the play’s advantage. And, as I have indicated, the performances, in large part, gave as good as they got with the material on offer.

The faults then for me largely lie in the meandering plot and the absence of an overarching narrative. This was not some non naturalistic, surreal or absurdist theatre. There was a story and there were ideas; they simply didn’t coalesce. I think Jeremy Herrin, the director, and the Headlong production team, who can normally be relied upon to manufacture a “hit”, probably know Common is a way off what they all hoped to create, but I for one would still applaud their bravery in trying to make this work.

So overall then I don’t think this is quite the turkey that some have painted it as. Yes it does fall down on many counts but it is also, in my view, interesting in other ways. You have been warned but if your expectations have been set low you might be pleasantly surprised if you do splurge all of £15 on one of the remaining performances.

And I wouldn’t mind betting that one day, after a re-write and a re-think, it comes back and is heralded as a misunderstood classic. Mind you it won’t be at the National I suspect.