Three Sisters, Tobacco Factory, Bristol

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The Independent Culture

It's always a pleasure to visit the Tobacco Factory. The director Andrew Hilton has been winning golden opinions for the ensemble seasons he's mounted here.

Hitherto, though, the accent has been on Shakespeare and the Jacobeans. Presenting this new production of Three Sisters, the company, so good in its magical Pericles, leaps into very different territory.

Communication in Chekhov is mostly between the lines and in the eloquence of what is left awkwardly unsaid. And where the blocking in an emblematic play like Pericles can have the diagram-like disposition of a dance, in the poetic realism of Three Sisters there's a tricky balance to be drawn between expressing the haphazard informality of domestic life a-swarm with guests and signalling the deep psychological patterns.

The experiment has paid off beautifully. This Three Sisters is both emotionally lucid and socially textured, both heart-snagging and alert to the ways that, in Chekhov's plays, the absurd and the tactless have an habit of ensuring that bathos will try to undermine pathos and yet only succeed in intensifying it.

Particularly good are the scenes between the fêted yet fated failure of a brother, Andrey (an excellently fagged-out Stuart Crossman), and Paul Nicolson's vividly etched Ferapont, the old servant of the district council. Expertly paced, their duets (so to speak) are little masterpieces; the hard-of-hearing up against the hard-of-noticing. And there's a fantastic sequence where the clandestine intimacy between Lucy Black's poignant Masha and Paul Currier's well-scrubbed Vershinin is made half-public by the way she doodles along to a song he hums.

All three sisters are strongly played - Daisy Douglas is affectingly dogged in defeat as Olga, and Catherine Hamilton progresses with rich insight and luminous stage presence as Irina. Nathan Rimmell gives a disturbing comic edge to the intense, cranky Solyony.

In general, though, this fine production proceeds on the correct assumption that if you get the relationships right, the tragic undertow takes care of itself.

To 30 April (0117-902 0344)

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