Three Sisters opens as preparations limp along for the youngest sister Irina's 22nd birthday party at an estate outside a town that's seemingly – to the siblings – a million miles from the bright lights of Moscow. City-born and bred, these orphan scions of the landowning class bemoan their fate, mouldering away in the sticks ('we have a lot of superfluous knowledge', Masha complains), their army father having moved the family there.
The play in its full version presents snapshots across five years of the lives of the Prozorov sisters and their family and associates. It depicts a struggle against the corrosion of human failure and imperfection, and serves as a pretty dark reflection on the missteps and failures of daily life. Small Fry Theatre has lopped almost an hour off the running time - wisely, I think, given the exiguous BT Studio space, which might easily stymie a fluent staging of Chekhov's penchant for frequently populating his stage with a throng of characters. Director Rudabeh Gray has almost always steered these scenes away from coming over as static and lifeless, ensuring movement by at least a couple of characters at any given moment.
Dominic Weatherby's economical set, essentially a pile of upturned bookshelves housing a medley of odds and ends (gleaned in part from Oxford's charity shops, he told me) serves as a magpie source of absent-minded delving by the characters, aiding the impression of cast activity. There's a Russian copper tray, china saucers in brown paper, a postcard of La Dame a la Licorne from the Musee de Cluny and – clever touch – a photo of Chekhov himself.
Rudabeh has also shrewdly animated and differentiated the sisters in their disparate desire to sell up and head for Moscow. The dutiful, unmarried oldest sister, Olga (Laura Henderson Child, very good in a still, unruffled portrayal), Masha, the middle sister, frustrated in her marriage (Martha West, brooding but later passionate when expressing her sense of drinking in the last chance saloon), and Irina (Millie Tupper, convincing in her swings between effervescence and wearied petulance). Their plausibility was aided by re-creation of 1900 in the women's costumes (designer uncredited) - though the period feel was strangely absent in respect of the actors' shoes - and a few suggestive lighting shifts from designer Tom Mackie.
The compromise and sense of the plight of the sisters is revealed most clearly in Masha's blind flirtation with the militia commandant Vershinin (Tom Bannon, with appropriately commanding voice) and her dislike, if not contempt, for her Latin tag-spouting husband. But it is Irina's descent over time into wholesale despair that drives home the collective dagger.
The ensemble acting was strong; of the others, I especially liked Eddie Holmes Milner's Cebutykin, the tipsy and bumbling doctor, and Ruby Gold's queen bee Natasha, effectively febrile. Chekhov's cruelly candid yet compassionate vision of humanity has come to rest this week in Oxford, and this thoughtful production beckons you to partake of it and also learn from its message of carpe diem.