I only managed to catch one show so far in this year’s International Youth Arts Festival (IYAF) at Kingston’s Rose Theatre; the production I saw made me sorry not to have been able to make it to more shows in the Festival. Lifelike Theatre’s Sisters, which runs for four performances in the Festival (the final show takes place this Sunday; further details here) is a gem: a warm-hearted, poignant and involving contemporary variant on Chekhov’s Three Sisters, adapted skilfully by writer/director Ben Clare. The action, unfolding between 2010 and 2012, is relocated to a remote island off of the north coast of Scotland (mobile reception: unreliable). Here four orphaned twentysomething siblings – Evie, Olivia, Mia, Antony – face their futures with a mixture of optimism and despair. As the naming of the central protagonists suggests, characterisation here is fairly faithful to Chekhov’s models and so is the structure of the piece: London replaces Moscow as the girls’ dreamed-of Paradise; the army’s Afghanistan-bound. This approach results in some slightly strained context-setting elements (when in doubt, blame the bankers) but overall it works very well.
Aided by a neat sound design that progresses from the hypnotic litany of the shipping forecast to the final tormenting sound of a plane leaving the island via the pitter-patter of rain and La Roux’s “Bulletproof,” the production is sparsely staged yet atmospheric, and admirably eschews the attention-seeking tendencies of last year’s much-admired Young Vic Three Sisters and Headlong’s recent, slightly tacky take on The Seagull. Clare and his collaborators are clearly more concerned with involving the audience in the characters’ dilemmas than in forcing questionable gimmicks on the material. And those dilemmas certainly communicate here, thanks in large part to the nuanced performances of an altogether excellent cast. Sophie Grace’s touchingly eager Evie, Naomi Marsden’s supremely caustic yet sympathetic Mia, Hannah Platts’s warm, hard-working mother-figure, David Howard’s love-sick hanger-on, Sue Viney’s housekeeper and Peter Wicks’s striking army captain are among the standout characterisations of the production.
Running the production without an interval, Clare avoids lags and flags of pacing, and the themes and relationships are drawn with clarity and insight. The production can’t quite replicate the particular, elusive quality of Chekhovian drama - those moment-to-moment oscillations between hope and despondency, comedy and tragedy, that are so hard to pull off - and its ending is muted. Still, Sisters provides something valuable: a highly resonant (and, yes, entirely “relevant”) portrait of the challenges of growing up, of the difficulties of marriage, work and parenthood, of the frustrations of entrapment that so many still experience in different ways, and the dream of escape.