Last Updated on 8th October 2021
Libby Purves, our resident TheatreCat reviews The Memory Of Water now playing at Hampstead Theatre.
The Memory Of Water
This portrait of three bickering sisters, trading memories and revelations in the days before a mother’s funeral in a snowy Yorkshire winter, was a Hampstead discovery 25 years ago: a debut by Shelagh Stephenson, herself one of five sisters. Seized by the theatre and finessed to perfection by Terry Johnson it won an Olivier, went to the West End and the US. It hasn’t faded.
As we all creak back into live-audience mode there’s a particular joy in plays you can take anyway, depending on your mood. In this case, you may furrow your brow on the nature of memory, the fact that as HMQ observes “recollections may vary”, and the depredations of Alzheimer’s. Alternatively, especially if female, you can wince pleasurably at its harshly salutary portrait of a particular 20th-century generation gap: the failure of understanding and the edges of envy between ‘traditional’ housewife mothers and their freedom-seeking, taboo-breaking career daughters. The ghost or memory of old Vi in the play speaks for many of my generation’s mothers with her sad line “I can’t seem to get the hang of any of you”. Or, as a third option, you can simply enjoy the play as an excellent dark-and-light comedy.
The cast is faultless: Lucy Black is nervy, organizing Teresa, married to stolid Yorkshire Frank; Laura Rogers is Mary, the sardonic clever nerve specialist having a long affair with a married TV doctor; Carolina Main is the youngest, Catherine, ricocheting helplessly, hysterically and hypochondriacally between faithless boyfriends. Early on, when it is just the three of them in the satin-quilted maternal bedchamber the rat-a-tat-tat of fast exchanges is jaggedly funny, laced with the absurd non-sequiturs of girl-talk: arguments about who got forgotten on a beach outing swerving into lines like “The funeral director’s got a plastic hand..” . Their physical language is perfect. Catherine sprawls upside down, moaning that she was never the favourite or really wanted (“She thought I was the menopause!”). Mary is studiedly languid and defensively sexless; Teresa a tense bustle of resentment.
When Mike-the-married-boyfriend arrives, frozen and grumpy from a long unheated train, the chemistry changes. Adam James is perfect in his doctorly detachment and already visible unreliability about commitment to Mary. When Kulvinder Ghir’s Frank appears, to find the women gone hysterical trying on their dead mother’s awful cocktail gowns, he gets one of the finest comedy entrance-speeches of any year, fresh from a loathed sales conference, fourteen diverted hours from Dusseldorf sitting next to a crazy puppetteer-for-the-deaf woman who talked. His is a hard lot, in the family health-supplement racket: ”You try living on goose-fat and pickled cucumbers in some emerging democracy” while trying to sell them royal jelly.
The great lines keep on coming, and every character has at least one bravura moment, one aria of life’s frustrations. Teresa, as Frank sadly predicts, does get “demented” when swigging whisky from the bottle and spilling the play’s saddest central secret, a moment Ortonesque in its shocking vigour. Catherine finally gets a dumping phone call from her latest Spanish restaurateur and loses herself to lonely miserable rage while the others in their body language make it clear that this is not the first such meltdown, and the men cringe. Mary, her saddest secret always burning under the surface, finally turns to challenge her slippery medical lover. The argument about a possibly drunken vasectomy-event is, again, on the edges of Orton and all the better for it.
It’s all splendid, including the wickedly specific place-and-period designs by Anna Reid (oh, posh Yorkshire! O, the bedspread and the mirrored wardrobes!). It all serves Stephenson’s beautiful writing with laser precision. It’s on until the 16th of October, and after the 27th of this month will no longer be ‘distanced’. Actually, I am tempted to go again, just to feel a more solidly packed audience laughing and gasping around me. That’s how much fun it was.
The Memory Of Water runs at Hampstead Theatre until 16 October 2021