Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Three Sisters

RashDash (Helen Goalen, Abbi Greenland and Becky Wilkie) after Chekov
RashDash and Royal Exchange Theatre
The Royal Exchange, Manchester
03 May 2018 to 19 May 2018

One has to be careful reviewing RashDash’s version of Three Sisters. After all, the lyrics of one of the songs performed in the show are made up of extracts from reviews of past productions of Anton Chekhov’s play.

RashDash describe their production of Three Sisters as an experiment with form and with the canon; which is one way of saying that it is a bit all over the place. Themes are as likely to be articulated through songs as speeches. The opening and closing of the show reflects, and updates for the present day, themes raised in the original play. In between, however, are songs and sketches that seem to have little connection to the source material. These ‘extras’ offer value for money but put the audience in a defensive position of trying to work out their purpose and if they have a point to make.

RashDash cheerfully acknowledge a cynical motive for tackling Chekov’s play – the need to attract a wider audience by embracing the classics, and, since there are three of them in the company, the choice seemed obvious. Typical of the cheeky attitude of RashDash, tonight there are actually five members of the company as the core cast is joined by violinist Yoon-Ji-Kim and drummer Chloe Rianna.

Each member of the company plays one of the three sisters (Helen Goalen is Olga, Abbi Greenland is Masha, and Becky Wilkie is Irena) but you couldn’t say they stay in character throughout the play. Rather they seem to be playing themselves playing characters. The format in the opening scenes involves an extract from the original text leading the cast to respond as if the characters were in the present day. Maybe RashDash are making the point that the classic status of the original brings gravity to themes that, in the present day, seem trivial – or that contemporary society can only deal with major issues by trivialising them.

Irena’s dreamy idealist becomes, in the present day, a rather vacuous artist who is content to express her concerns through her art. Olga’s maternal instincts and sense of duty become ineffectual, agonising over how difficult it is to help the homeless and the best way of responding to tragedies like the Grenfell Tower fire. Instead of an unfulfilling marriage driving Masha to infidelity, she is a feminist tormented that the need for a boyfriend amounts to a betrayal of her principles. Notably, while Chekov’s characters long to escape stifling provincial life for the metropolitan glamour of Moscow, the modern equivalent is to move to a rural setting.

The default position of RashDash is absurdist humour. Scenes, divided by blackouts, offer quick-fire single gags – such as speculating that, if a man talking is regarded as philosophising, then what do you call women talking? In a wonderfully silly scene, the lights come back after the blackout to find the cast playing hide and seek.

A prior knowledge of the original Three Sisters is probably not essential but does help appreciate the quality of one of the closing songs, which articulates Chekov’s bleakly ironic opinions on the value of work. As we only really see the sisters at the start of their story, we never really progress to the final sense of disappointed hopes that Chekov achieved. I would have preferred a more streamlined version of RashDash’s version that removed the ‘extras’ that seem unrelated to the source material, but even so this is a lively and highly original tribute to a classic.

Reviewer: David Cunningham