Damaged people

Theatre - Sheridan Morley enjoys Chekhov's <em>Three Sisters</em> but is less impressed by a play ab

Even by Chekhovian standards, Three Sisters is light on plot. It is built entirely around a non-event - three sisters failing to escape a remote garrison town and get to Moscow. In Christopher Hampton's realistic new adaptation, we finally understand something that earlier translations have obscured: it is not the town that the sisters cannot escape, but themselves. We also confront the irony that much is in fact happening (a fatal duel, a huge fire) just off-stage. Moscow is unlikely to prove as eventful by comparison.

Recent West End revivals of the play have involved at least two real-life theatrical families: the Redgraves and the Cusacks. The focus was inevitably on how well sisters could play sisters, a question on which the jury is still out. This characteristically intelligent production by Michael Blakemore gives us two unrelated but remarkable London stage debuts. Press attention will inevitably centre on Kristin Scott Thomas, one of the few recent Hollywood stars to appear in the West End who can actually act. Her Masha is a haunted, nervous, birdlike creature, forever wondering whether it would be safe to leave the cage of her family home. But we also get a first appearance for Kate Burton, Richard Burton's daughter, whose Olga takes charge of the stage and the sisters.

If there were to have been a plot here, the sisters have clearly lost it. They lead lives of depressive despair, surrounded by a large number of men all of whom turn out to be a waste of space, except possibly Eric Sykes's old retainer who, unusually, gets the laughs out of fleeting appearances that have hitherto seemed deeply unfunny.

There is not a single sister here, indeed barely a single character, who is not, to quote another Chekhov play, in mourning for his or her own life. As Masha says, "life is good whatever the damage", but it is the damage that concerns us here: these are all damaged people, and for once the Blakemore-Hampton version gives us what Chekhov plaintively demanded of his first cast at the Moscow Arts Theatre in 1901 (when Stanislavsky himself played Vershinin) - it is "serious but not sad".

The play opens with the arrival of a new garrison and ends with its departure. The soldiers bring nothing but trouble, and they (as represented by Robert Bathurst's unusually amiable Vershinin) leave nothing but trouble. All they have really done is to illustrate the possibility of travel for three sisters who could easily walk to the local railway station and pay the price of three single tickets to Moscow. Why they do not is for us to discover: the genius of Chekhov. The cool clarity of this Blakemore staging allows a journey into their minds and hearts that is never less than enthralling and eventually heartbreaking.

From 1917 to 1933, the Playhouse Theatre was run by my grandmother Gladys Cooper, the first woman ever to manage a commercial theatre in London, although Lilian Baylis was already deeply embedded at the Old Vic. In recent times the Playhouse has been home to BBC radio programmes, and stand-up comics and transfers. It is wonderful to see it back with such a distinguished production.

A Reckoning, the play that brings Jonathan Pryce back to drama after years away in movies and musicals, is loosely based on a curious case that occupied the wine district of California and the press headlines for some time.

The issue is essentially that of recov- ered memory syndrome. Wesley Moore's play gives us a daughter (a chilly Flora Montgomery) who, traumatised by her mother's death and encouraged by an unseen psychiatrist, decides to sue her father for ruining her childhood. Her suit is based on memories of emotional abuse recovered in sessions with a psychiatrist whose methods are now considered controversial at best. Similar cases have usually involved some form of sexual abuse, but from the outset here, the daughter makes clear to Pryce's equally chilly and world-weary architect father that this is no part of her accusation. Instead, he is simply sued for being a rotten father.

The problem with Moore's duologue is that we never meet any other witnesses, we never even get inside the courtroom, and therefore most audiences, unaware that, amazingly, something very like this has happened in a number of real American families, are likely to assume that any halfway decent judge would have thrown this suit out of court. So there is no real tension, and repeatedly we are simply reminded that memory is treacherous. The reckoning of the title never really comes.

Three Sisters is at the Playhouse Theatre, London WC2 (020 7369 1785) until 18 May

A Reckoning is at the Soho Theatre, London W1 (020 7478 0100) until 3 May

This article first appeared in the 21 April 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The road to Damascus