THEATRE / Sister acts: Rhoda Koenig on Lisa Forrell's production of The Three Sisters, Chichester

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The Independent Culture
Made wretched by the constraints of provincial marriage and spinsterhood, precluded by circumstance, lack of money, and excessive refinement from doing something about them, Masha, Olga and Irina must take an ironic view of Baron Tusenbach's statement that awareness of suffering is a sign of progress. In her thoughtful production of The Three Sisters, Lisa Forrell brings a feminine sympathy to this problem of feeling that one is living in an age of transition to a higher state. The male as well as female characters portrayed by her marvellous cast regard the future with timidity or disdain until it turns and eats them up.

The one exception, of course, is Natasha, who personifies the future of rapacious self-assertion, quickly discarding her feelings for her weak husband and driving the sisters from their home. Julia St John, in a not unsympathetic performance, shows how Natasha's anxiety and frustration at being unable to communicate with her higher-class sisters-in-law develops into hysterical domination.

Apart from the over-eager Laurel Lefkow, who, in the first act, wears the expression of someone listening for the starting gun in an eating contest, Forrell's cast make one believe that, for all their inadequacies, they deserve a better fate. Tusenbach is given a baby- like vulnerability by Crispin Harris; when, after several years of smiling and waiting, he finally wins Irina, his lack of joy makes painfully plain the hollowness of his victory. Her egotistical idealism, when she says she can never love him, seems crueller than any of Natasha's vulgar meanness and the brusqueness with which all three sisters dismiss the death of this blameless soul is a shocking demonstration of how they have been brutalised by failure. Greg Hicks's Vershinin, a very mild military commander, gropes hesitantly toward his beliefs about culture and society; one can see how his openness and creativity appeal to Masha, the sister shackled to a petty bore. As Masha, Suzan Sylvester is a model of barely restrained ferocity: she hugs herself with pleasure at Vershinin's declaration of love.

This moody play is a difficult one to stage in the almost-in-the-round Minerva theatre, but the shabby grandeur of Simon Higlett's mansion, along with Robin Carter's responsive but not unduly poetic lighting, provide a solid setting for these dislocated dreamers.

Minerva Studio, Chichester (0243-781312). Until 24 Sept.