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David Benedict: Did Three Sisters suffer from the critical hangover effect?

Pearl Chanda and Peter McDonald in Rebecca Frecknall’s production of Three Sisters, which has been greeted with, mostly, good but not great reviews due, in part, to the Hangover Effect. Photo: Marc Brenner Pearl Chanda and Peter McDonald in Rebecca Frecknall’s production of Three Sisters, which has been greeted with, mostly, good but not great reviews due, in part, to the Hangover Effect. Photo: Marc Brenner
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I’ve always considered it a shame that although one can emerge from the theatre disappointed, in the opposite circumstance one cannot say: “I was appointed”. Linguistic niceties aside, the business of dis/appointment is bound up with the puzzlingly under-discussed critical business of great expectations.

There is, frankly, little worse. Both raves and roastings from reviewers have a destabilising effect on audiences’ experiences. Excitedly taking your seat in the knowledge that you are about to witness a supposedly life-changingly brilliant production almost always leads to a let-down along the lines of “Well, it wasn’t that good…” Equally, witnessing a show that has received reviews akin to death notices can induce audiences to think: “It wasn’t half as bad as I’d been told.”

The received wisdom about critics is that we get to avoid all that: we go in cold. Except we don’t. It has always been difficult to ignore gossip coming off previews, but in the Twitter era, no matter how pure one’s intentions, news about a show being excitingly good or depressingly bad is well-nigh impossible to avoid.

‘Both raves and roastings from reviewers have a destabilising effect on audiences’ experiences’

Yet, even without the online chat, try as we might to turn up without agendas, those of us who have been in the job for more than five minutes have, like racegoers, knowledge of the form. We cannot un-know that X is great casting; or that Y is a play we’ve seen before and it’s not one of the writer’s best; or that the director’s finest work was a while back…

So far, so obvious. What’s less recognised is the condition allied to Great Expectations, which we can call the Hangover Effect. Back in 1998, Barry Humphries swept into Theatre Royal Haymarket with the glasses, the gladioli and New Edna – The Spectacle. After an intro by the reliably slovenly Sir Les Patterson, the rest of the long first half was an equally lumbering musical of Edna’s pre-damehood life. The second half lifted itself from the comedy quagmire with Edna’s beloved shtick but, at what should have been the climax, everything seized up when Edna plucked a number from the phonebook, rang and harangued an unsuspecting inhabitant of Guildford.

To the mortification of all 899 members of the press-night house, the Guildford dweller either didn’t get the joke or else simply refused to play along. And 21 years ago, with the technology in its infancy, it simply wasn’t possible to switch to another call. Edna didn’t quite die on stage but it was a horribly close-run thing, a feeling reflected in the next day’s grim reviews.

And the next night, the press all attended another comedy double-bill: Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound and Shaffer’s Black Comedy with a dynamite cast headed by David Tennant and Anna Chancellor.

‘In the Twitter era, no matter how pure one’s intentions, news about a show being excitingly good or depressingly bad is well-nigh impossible to avoid’

Inspector Hound is a hoot of a play, while Shaffer’s magnificently engineered farce should, after the opening set-up, release non-stop gales of laughter building to near-hysteria: think One Man, Two Guvnors compressed into one hour. Alas, the productions were good enough to show off the writing but never induced the dizzyingly helpless cries of laughter I’ve seen in audiences for both plays before and since. But in comparison with the dismay induced the previous night, the laughter was so welcome that almost every critic massively over-praised it.

I was reminded of this – albeit in reverse – at the Almeida after watching Rebecca Frecknall’s production of Three Sisters. The show has been greeted with, mostly, good but not great reviews due, in part, to the Hangover Effect. In this case, it was not because of the show the critics saw the preceding night, but because of Frecknall’s previous show, her spectacular reinvigoration of Summer and Smoke. Even the best reviews openly expressed or subtextually hinted at a sense of disappointment that she hadn’t been as radical with Chekhov as she had been with Tennessee Williams.

Few have recognised that by taking the play out of the control of, as is traditional, three celebrated actors usually too old for the roles, Frecknall has restored Chekhov’s crucial balancing of all his characters. Too often Three Sisters is turned into The Sorrows of Masha – an emotional story of the middle sister fruitlessly in love, with other family members attached. But Frecknall shows us the play in its entirety, highlighting the way Chekhov places every character on a spectrum from hope to cynicism bookended, surprisingly, by the usually overlooked and/or underplayed roles of the doctor (a shockingly dismissive Alan Williams) and Masha’s dullard of a husband, the heartbreakingly hopeful Elliot Levey.

Three Sisters is a masterpiece open to vivid interpretation but, unlike the frankly second-rank Summer and Smoke, it doesn’t need radical surgery. But the all-too-present success of Frecknall’s name-making hit induced critical hangover. It is being judged for having failed to live up to the critics’ own great expectations.

Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/david-benedict

Three Sisters review at Almeida Theatre, London – ‘some dazzling acting’

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