English playwright Shelagh Stephenson’s comedy returns to the Hampstead Theatre, where it was first staged in 1996, in a new revival directed by Alice Hamilton. The play deals with themes of grief and remembrance told through conversations between three sisters (and their partners) in the aftermath of their aged mother Vi’s death. Between managing the arrangements for the funeral and coming to terms with the reality of their mother’s demise, the sisters, namely Teresa, Catherine and Mary, begin to unpack incidents and conversations from the past. These “fleeting” strolls down memory lane are neither pleasant nor particularly therapeutic, for their confronted by personal demons and shared resentments they’ve held on to for far too long. The tension between them is characterized by the dysfunctional relationship shared by siblings who grow up to be adults with vastly different outlooks on life. Throw in the additional absurdity of a never-ending list of funeral service tasks and the nostalgia induced by packing up their mother’s material belongings, the sisters engage in a hilariously mean battle of wit, confessions and remembrance, each grappling with different memories of their shared experiences.
Stephenson’s writing not only brings out the inherent love-hate nature of these relationships but also highlights the tensions brought on by the strait-laced upbringing of the sisters, such as Vi’s callous handling of Mary’s teenage pregnancy and fostering a feeling of inadequacy in Catherine. The terse dialogues and circular conversations occur without any big actions or moments on-stage, making it a tad difficult to remain fully engaged for the entire 2 hours and 30 minutes of its duration, but invites us to empathize with the characters who feel “trapped” in the same self-destructive patterns and mistakes of the past. Hamilton’s direction allows the ensemble to craft strong performances that bring out their character’s unique personalities, playfully wringing the sharp-witted text to elicit steady laughter all throughout the evening. This is complemented by Anna Reid’s spectacular design of the family’s home, which is not only a visual treat to look at but also invites us to think about the importance of “appearances” in Vi’s parenting approach. There is a deliberate abundance of things and items to discover, with characters tapping into their “object” and “flesh” memories to recall experiences they’d buried deep within.
Laura Roger delivers a measured portrayal of Mary, whose self-confident facade and coping mechanism fades as she begins to reconcile her past and present. Lucy Black brings out the wild child in the eldest sister Teresa, who has tried to be the “responsible” one and keep the family together all these years but is now deeply unhappy at how her life has turned out. Carolina Main shines as Catherine, the dark sheep of the family, finding a heartwarming balance between the character’s neurotic outbursts and emotional slip ups. Adam James’ unassuming presence as Mary’s partner Mike grounds the drama between the sisters, with his complex perspective on parenthood paving the way for Mary to come unto herself. This is complemented by Kulvinder Ghir, essaying the role of Teresa’s partner Frank, who skilfully uses the character’s aloof nature and emotional distance from the lived experiences of the sisters to set the ground for some truly funny moments to emerge. The ensemble is completed by the brief, yet moving appearances by Lizzy Mcinnerny as the mother, inviting the audience to glimpse into the complex life of a woman whose decisions continue to unsettle her daughters even in her death.
To summarize, Hampstead Theatre’s revival of The Memory of Water is a moving, light-hearted exploration of the ways we obsessively live (and relive) our memories to the point where they become too precious to share with others, for we have moulded them into the “perfect” versions that reflect our past selves the best, even if it comes at the expense of the present and everything it holds.
You can watch The Memory of Water at the Hampstead Theatre NW33EU until 16th October. Learn more and book your tickets at https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/2021/the-memory-of-water/
Reviewer: Gaurav Singh Nijjer
Reviewed: 10th September 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★