The Three Sisters john Byrne Edinburgh 2014




John Byrne's Three Sisters is adapted from the original play by Anton Chekhov, and in this adaptation the play is set  around a naval family living in Dunoon in the definitely not swinging 1960s, due to their late father's posting to the submarine base there.

At this point in the review, I have to admit that although I am aware of the original work by Anton Chekhov, and know the basic outline the work (a quick internet search will give anyone more information on the original if they want too), I have never read the original play or watched it performed.  As such, any review of tonight's work has to stand on its own merits as a new John Byrne piece of work to me.

We open in a large house in which the Penhalligan sisters now live. The eldest is Olive (Muireann Kelly), then Maddy (Sally Reid) and the youngest of the sisters Renee (Jessica Hardwick).  The sisters live in the house with their brother Archie (Jonathan Watson), a live-in lodger Dr MacGillivery (Sylvester McCoy) and an elderly family retainer Dorbie (Stephen Clyde).  Also sharing the house are visiting potential naval suitors for the two unmarried sisters. 

Olive is the elder sister who has reached the sad  point of marrying any suitable suitor if the chance was given, Maddy is married to a local teacher (married off at 18) McCool (Stephen Clyde), and Renee is bored and just wants out of Dunoon and back to a more interesting life in London despite the attentions of a devoted potential husband in Nick Fairbairn (Ewan Donald).  There is also a rival for her interest from another navy man - Maloney (Martin McCormick).

The opening act starts with Renee's birthday.  It is also the anniversary of their father's death.  All three sisters are thinking of better times and the events that brought them from London eleven years ago when their father was posted to the naval base as a submarine commander.  All three sisters are highly educated (they speak three languages - including Russian to start with), and feel completely out of touch with dull and uneducated locals around them.  Their brother Archie is also very well educated and linguistic and has hopes of getting a teaching post at Glasgow University.

Life in Dunoon has worn the sisters down a bit.  Olive has pretty much just settled for her dreams being gone, Maddy is in a loveless marriage to McCool and bored out of her mind with it, and Renee just longs for a life back in London. 

Life starts to really change for the sisters, however, when Archie decides to marry a local girl called Natasha (Louise McCarthy) and Maddy meets Lt Commander McShane (Andy Clark) at Renee's birthday party.  McShane earlier in his career served with their father.  Maddy at first just dislikes McShane, but soon has to admit that she has fallen in love with him. Nothing is ever easy in this play though and McShane is stationed in Dunoon with his suicidal wife and his children.

As events begin to take their course, the sisters realise more and more how unhappy they have become, Archie has two children in  marriage to Natasha but the marriage proves a disaster and he lets his teaching dreams slide to settle for being a member of the local council.  Dr MacGillivery pretty much has a complete nervous breakdown and is convinced nothing is real and that life is just an illusion. The good Dr also makes sure that the sisters know that Natasha is having an affair with the Lord Provost.  Archie is also gambling heavily (so is the Dr) and is so deep in debt that he re-mortgages the family home without telling his sisters.  Natasha moves swiftly from being intimidated by the sisters' superior social and intellectual status to pretty much taking over the household.

As well as a fire in the village, events take a darker turn towards the end between Fairbairn (whom Renee has finally agreed to marry) and Maloney. Despite the sisters' best hopes, nothing seems to be getting any brighter in life for them.

This is essentially a play about lost hopes and dreaming that one day things will get better.  At its core, this is to me a woman's play as so much revolves around the three sisters and how life is trapping the three women at different stages of their life as they make the best choices they can from the limited options available to them.  Also, the choices the three sisters make have huge impacts on the people around them.  There is some humour in this play, but it is always understated, and the despair at times of the sisters as they slowly accept their fates is wonderfully played by Muireann Kelly, Jessica Hardwick and Sally Reid.  Jonathan Watson is excellent as Archie as you can almost share his despair at his dreams slipping away.  Everyone on stage tonight turns in great performances too. 

This is not a happy or feelgood play, but a thought provoking piece of work about life, choices, acceptances and changes and everyone on stage gives very powerful performances that give an audience a feeling of being in the room with them and being part of their experiences.  If you decide to go and see this play, be prepared to listen carefully as missing a line or two can mean missing really important things.  The story really is in the words in this one.


Review by Tom King


All reviews are copyright Showtime Edinburgh / the review writer and may not be used or reprinted in whole or in part in any medium whatsoever without the written permission of Showtime Edinburgh or the review writer.

We do however make exception for artists, companies and theatres involved in any review to use reviews (or part of) for their own promotion and publicity