3 Sisters on Hope Street, Everyman, Liverpool

Chekhov sisters cry over their matzo
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The Independent Culture

For Olga, Masha, and Irina, read Gertie, May and Rita. Chekhov's three young women and brother Andrei (here Arnold), as portrayed in Three Sisters, have been uprooted in more than the usual sense. The first theatre production by Liverpool's Everyman and Playhouse company for the city's European Capital of Culture year, co-commissioned with Hampstead Theatre, 3 Sisters on Hope Street takes a European classic, shakes it up and gives it a distinct Liverpudlian slant.

Marketed as "an inventive reimagining", this substantial reworking of Chekhov's original was co-written by the Liverpool writer Diane Samuels, among whose plays is the poignant Kindertransport, and by Tracy-Ann Oberman, best known for her role as Chrissie Watts in EastEnders. They have set the action in a tight-knit Jewish community in 1946, in the very street that houses the Everyman theatre, an artery linking several well-known landmarks as well as the roads leading to the Mersey, once a major departure route for those seeking new lives in the New World.

And so it is for New York, not Moscow, that the three sisters yearn. Their mundane lives are enlivened not by members of the Imperial Army but by Jewish GIs from the American air base at nearby Burtonwood, whose presence in the Lasky (Chekhov's Prozorov) household offers a window beyond their claustrophobic surroundings of shabby gentility.

The director, Lindsay Posner, has created an absorbing evening out of a bizarre blend of material. Take a Chekhovian structure, drench it in Liverpool references, liberally sprinkle it with Jewish humour and sayings, and you have, as Oberman put it, "a kind of Three Sisters via Woody Allen". Political and historical references are updated, so that the anti-Jewish riots in Liverpool in 1947 replace the third-act fire in the original play. Listening to the broadcast of the Grand National from Aintree, on which everyone has a flutter, becomes a bone of contention between the family and Arnold's mouthy, Liverpool-born-and-bred wife, Debbie (Natasha). When Arnold's dwindling funds force him to remortgage the family's house, it is to Debbie's butcher dad that he becomes in debt. And Dr "Nate" Weinberg (Chebutykin), the Lasky family's lodger, is dismayed at the arrival of an NHS that will turn doctors into civil servants. In Chekhov's original, two men duel over Rita; here it is a bare-knuckle fight.

The spinster Gertie (Anna Francolini), the eldest sister, is the least changed from Chekhov. May, the married middle sister, is as feisty as Masha, strumming out her frustration in loud bursts of Gershwin at the grand piano. Suzan Sylvester paces her performance beautifully until, her dream destroyed, her whole body contorts as if crushed in agony. The youngest, Rita (engagingly played by Samantha Robinson), becomes interested in the Zionist movement; encouraged by her American air-force clerk, Tush (Tuzenbach), Rita determines to go away and fight for the promised homeland. All convey the impression of restless, inquisitive young women trapped in their past, confined by their impoverished circumstances and apprehensive of a rapidly changing world.

On Ruari Murchison's wonderfully evocative period set, events unfold slowly and fascinatingly. The unashamedly manipulative Debbie (a compelling performance from Daisy Lewis) drags Arnold down from his academic tower to the drudgery of fatherhood and local politics, while she enjoys "car rides" with Councillor O'Donnell. The shadowy Solly has been altered by the unspeakable things he witnessed at Dachau; the flight commander Vince (Vershinin) comes across less as a philosopher and more as a romantic.

Elliot Levey presents a tediously boring yet funny deputy headmaster, Mordy; Philip Voss offers solid support as Nate; and Ben Caplan makes a tragic Arnold, a pathetic shell of his former promising self nagged into numb submission by his flinty wife. It's an intriguing evening, with some rich portraits, even if the allusions and humour aren't yet quite as clearly presented as they surely will be in time.

T o 16 February (0151-709 4776), then transferring to Hampstead Theatre, London NW3 (020-7722 9301) from 21 February