Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

We Are Three Sisters

Blake Morrison
Northern Broadsides
The Lowry, Salford, and touring
(2011)

We Are Three Sisters production photo

The latest production from Northern Broadsides is We Are Three Sisters, Blake Morrison's take on the story of the Brontës—novelists Charlotte, Anne and Emily, their artist brother Branwell and Irish father Patrick—at their rather cramped parsonage home in Howarth in Yorkshire but with an unsubtle nod to one of Chekhov's famous plays in the title.

The play shows us the three unmarried, motherless sisters who all read and write compulsively as well as keeping house for their vicar father and all three dream of having their novels published in London under their male pseudonyms. The local doctor is obsessed with youngest sister Anne even though he is much older than her but his affection isn't returned. When their father takes on a curate, he turns out to be a compulsive charmer who turns the heads of two of the sisters until one, at least, grows wise to his duplicity. However the happy home is disrupted when Branwell becomes obsessed with a rather gauche but rich married woman, Lydia Robinson, who comes to stay and tries to change the running of the household.

The link with Chekhov is primarily the joke that the sisters are obsessed with going to this far-away, glamorous place called London, just as Chekhov's Three Sisters are always talking about going to Moscow. This comparison falls down, of course in the second half when they do go to London (or two of them do) and are successful in their meetings with publishers. There is also a touch of that English approach to Chekhov that makes him slow and ponderous about this production, and the gunshot at the end is reminiscent of Chekhov's reluctance to part with some melodramatic touches.

The play has many lighter moments, however, including some witty lines from father Patrick and the ridiculously self-obsessed character of the teacher. It is towards the end when it starts to drag, as every time it looks as though it is about to end, they have another deep discussion about something they've already talked about earlier in the play or something happens that was obvious several pages earlier.

There are some nicely distinct characters in the sisters, with Catherine Kinsella as the motherly Catherine, a superb performance as the brooding Emily with a fondness for depressing verse from Sophia Di Martino, and Rebecca Hutchinson as young, naïve Anne. Duggie Brown makes Patrick loveable and funny with perfect delivery of some witty lines, and John Branwell gives a moving portrayal of the lonely doctor. Gareth Cassidy's Branwell is arrogant and self-obsessed—not a million miles from the character he played in Hard Times for Library Theatre—and does a great job of turning the audience against him. Completing the cast are Barrie Rutter as the teacher, Becky Hindley as snobbish Lydia in a hideous green frock, Marc Parry as the curate and Eileen O'Brien as the old housekeeper Tabby.

Jessica Worrall's set is functional but looks like a lot of bits cobbled together without an overall vision, with a sparse room on a platform in the centre between two chimneys (and not so much as a faint glow from the fireplaces where they all warm themselves) that looks as though it is the whole house but clearly can't be, which makes entrances and exits a bit confusing and makes it appear that they hang their coats up in the graveyard.

Morrison gives a very interesting insight into the home life of three of England's most celebrated novelists that is a tale worth telling, but his tendency to over-explain at times in the dialogue makes a natural delivery difficult and the lengthy, drawn-out saunter to the end makes it feel rather long. As it stands it is worth seeing even if I can't get too enthusiastic about it, but I suspect it would be much more watchable if it were half an hour shorter.

"We Are Three Sisters" is at The Lowry until 24th September.

Reviewer: David Chadderton