the play is very enjoyable, not least because every character is nuanced and fully realised in this truly ensemble production.
John Byrne’s new adaptation relocates the three sisters—now called Olive, Renee and Maddy—to 1960s Dunoon, where they dream of a cultured life in London. Superficially at least, this update is successful: allusions to the Second World War are seamlessly integrated, while the updated literary references are now comprehensible to audiences not versed in 18th century Russian literature. Smaller changes—for example, a gift of an expensive samovar (a heated metal container traditionally used to heat and boil water) rewritten as the gift of a record player—reinforce the time period and ensure we understand all the cultural references.
Yet, relocating the action to 1960s Dunoon is a curse as well as a blessing. In the original play (which premiered in 1901) it was easy to accept that, despite their education and employment, the three sisters really were trapped in their turn-of-the-century provincial life. It becomes harder to sympathise with their plight when, with spare income to hand, they’re less than a day’s journey from London by train.
Nor has director Andy Arnold fully embraced the new modern setting. At several points during the first act, characters walk centre stage to deliver lengthy monologues before moving back to the group again. This very formal style of delivery might have integrated well into a play set in 1900 (when naturalism was in its infancy), but it grates in a play, set in the 1960s, written in the 21st century.
These issues notwithstanding, the play is very enjoyable, not least because every character is nuanced and fully realised in this truly ensemble production. Muireann Kelly gives an extremely subtle performance as the stoical Olive; the scene in which she fails to stand up for her elderly servant, despite believing passionately in her cause, is a real treat. Martin McCormick is extremely unsettling as the unhinged rival for Renee's love, while former Time Lord (and Hobbit) Sylvester McCoy skilfully treads the line between playfulness and dark resignation as the bumbling Dr MacGillivery.
All in all, this remains an interesting new interpretation of a classic play which, while not necessarily wholly successful, is certainly very enjoyable.