Three Sisters

Anton Chekhov, adapted by Mustapha Matura
Eclipse Theatre at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
(2006)

Mustapha Matura's take on Three Sisters owes so little to the original it can scarcely be called an adaptation. The playscript identifies it as being "after" Chekhov, and so it is… a long, long way after. The play has been relocated to colonial Trinidad and updated to the early 1940s, a move that makes redundant any attempt to reproduce the atmosphere of Chekhov's masterpiece. Does it matter? Not in the least! This is a funny and moving play quite capable of standing on its own merits, and those familiar with the original will enjoy picking out the correspondences with Chekhov's own work.

It's 1941 and the middle-class Rivers family is celebrating the birthday of its youngest member, Audrey (Lorraine Burroughs). Her sisters Alma (Brigid Zengeni) and Helen (Nicola Alexis) are struggling with personal problems - Alma faces the prospect of life as a spinster and worries about the family's financial troubles, the artistic Helen is trapped in a loveless marriage to corrupt businessman Francis (Andrew Dennis). Their weak-willed brother Peter (Adrian Irvine) is on the verge of accepting a headmastership and marrying the glamorous but shallow Jean (Tracey Saunders).

But World War Two, in particular the threatened invasion of "the Mother Country", is casting its shadow over the family's privileged lifestyle in Port of Spain. Whilst Audrey dreams of returning to Cambridge, where the sisters spent three idyllic months as children, her boyfriend Scott (Ben Bennett) finds that his radical political views antagonise his gauche friend Lucas (Nathan Constance). And Helen's romance with white army officer Richard (David Michaels) threatens to destroy the family's reputation completely…

Matura's play manages to be both familiar and fresh. There are a couple of moments when the suspension of disbelief becomes slightly unwilling - is it likely that Richard and the Rivers family, in addition to sharing the same surname, would have lived next door to each other in Madingley Road? Would the disgraced Peter, however desperate he may have been to avoid gossiping neighbours, have sneaked outdoors in a joke-shop beard? (I realise this incident was inspired by the false beard Kulygin confiscated from one of his third-form pupils, but it's still not very credible).

Yet, on the whole, the play transfers remarkably well to a 1940's Caribbean setting. It's hard to imagine Chekhov's Olga saying "Someone squeezed my buttocks…so I turned round and thought, if someone thinks my buttocks is worth squeezing, squeeze away," but coming from the pragmatic Alma the comment is hilariously apt. This is the play Chekhov might well have written with the help of a Caribbean upbringing and plenty of rum punch.

Under Paulette Randall's direction the play maintains a leisurely pace without dragging. The airless atmosphere of a Trinidad summer is beautifully evoked by Libby Marshall's set, an elegant but faded drawing room with tall, shuttered windows through which a tropical sky is visible. An outstanding cast makes this re-imagining of a classic play well worth seeing.

At the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 18th March, then touring to Cheltenham, Bracknell, Ipswich, Eastbourne, Bristol, Nottingham and Truro. Tour ends 13th May.

Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson