Theatre review: Three Sisters, Traverse, Edinburgh

What is it all about, Chekhov's great 1901 masterwork Three Sisters? Three grown-up sisters live in a provincial Russian town, where their father, a distinguished army general, has recently died. Olga is a schoolteacher, Masha is unhappily married to another teacher, the youngest, Irina, just 20, wants to work and have a useful life. All three long to return to Moscow but somehow it never happens; life gets in the way of their dreams, as the play muses on inevitable human failure and imperfection, on the surreal comedy of everyday life, on the absurdity and beauty of our dreams and on the occasional sheer cruelty of fate.

Three Sisters
Three Sisters

Three Sisters, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh ****

It’s a play, in other words, that might have been made for the performers of Lung Ha, Scotland’s professional theatre company working with adults with learning difficulties. Its members experience a wide range of conditions, from Down’s syndrome to severe autism, sometimes with speech and mobility difficulties; yet every one of those key Chekhovian themes and obsessions emerges with terrific clarity, humour and emotional directness from this 80-minute version of Three Sisters written for them by Adrian Osmond.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

On an attractive garden-room set by Karen Tennant, director Maria Oller marshals a cast of 20 performers – capturing the sense of a house full of servants and visitors – that nonetheless focuses tightly on the central trio of sisters, beautifully played by Emma McCaffrey, Nicola Tuxworth and Emma Clark.

Alongside them, Kenneth Ainslie is poignant and brilliantly humorous as their feeble brother Andrey, Teri Robb hilarious as Andrey’s increasingly dreadful wife Natasha, Michael Connolly and Scott Davidson impressive as Irina’s suitors and John Edgar truly touching as the baffled and drunken old doctor, Chebutykin. Add light-touch movement by Janis Claxton, and a beautiful folk-inflected score by Finnish composer Anna-Karin Korhonen – played and sung by herself and two fellow-artists from the show’s co-producing partner, the Sibelius Academy Helsinki – and the show emerges as a beautiful, brief glimpse of this great play that misses none of its emotional heart and soul.

And at the end, when the three sisters gather to gaze out at the departing soldiers, it’s hard to resist the intensity of human feeling generated by the show’s three main actors; performers who know in their very bones that life can be a painful daily struggle, full of dreams that may never come true, but is also rich and beautiful and unknowable, and worth living to the very end.

Now on tour to Perth Theatre, 23-24 March, and the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, 28 March