Theatre: Only so many ways to mourn for your life

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The Independent Culture
THE STAGE of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre is vast and, for the first three acts, it tends to dwarf Bill Bryden's production of Three Sisters. A massive, cloudy skyscape broods at a tilt over the interior scenes, which are performed on a set with two deck-like playing areas and no suggestion of walls. You feel that, given a fair wind, the eponymous siblings could soon find themselves sailing to Moscow.

Mercurial shifts of mood are not easy to achieve on this magnitude of canvas, and Susan Wooldridge's Lumpy Latimer-style Olga has to shout herself hoarse to be heard. In act three, the glow from the fire in the town is such a distant smudge of red on the horizon that it robs a sense of immediacy from the dramatised responses to this emergency.

It would be good to report that the production overcomes the handicaps of scale. But that would be only patchily true. Alarm bells rang for me right at the start. On the gauzy scrim, there is an adorably sweet drawing of the sisters and their brother Andrey as children (Irina in a pram) posing on a Moscow bridge with their parents. This descends between the acts to the accompaniment of schmaltzy, sub-Doctor Zhivago music, all mournful pipes and bittersweet balalaika. The arm-twisting sentimentality patronises the characters and the audience.

The production has its decided strengths. Jasper Britton is a glintingly baleful presence as Solyony, superbly projecting the dangerous perversity of a man compelled to destroy the things he holds dear before they are taken away from him. David Collings is also excellent as Kulygin, the tedious schoolteacher husband of Felicity Dean's brooding, adulterous Masha. He produces a superb moment in the final act when Masha succumbs to hysterics after the departure of her lover: here, instead of handing her a glass of water, Collings's touchingly uxorious Kulygin throws it in her face, giving a fleeting, unexpected glimpse of the wounded depths in this mild, deceptively uncomplicated man.

Too much of the production, though, feels underpowered. Guy Parry, very fine in the small part of the soldier Fedotik, whirls around with the insanely giddy elation of someone who has nothing to lose when he learns that all his possessions have been burnt in the fire. If only he could impart some of that energy to the starrier elements in the cast. Chekhov's characters have been described as suffering from "dynamic apathy": they long intensely to live. But, playing Captain Vershinin, the strapping Charles Dance is colourless and etiolated. The performance does not catch the absurd, manipulative side of this professional ami de maison who milks sympathy because of a troubled family situation that, it is pretty evident, he has helped to bring about.

Mike Poulton's translation nicely beefs up the comedy in some of Chekhov's lines. Here, bewailing the fact that he has forgotten all his medical knowledge and just caused a woman's death, the nihilistic doctor Chebutykin declares that "Twenty-five years ago she'd have been in with a chance." All told, though, an evening that is several copecks short of the full rouble.

To 21 November. Box Office: 0121 236 4455

Paul Taylor