Though showing its age in some respects, and perhaps a tad too long, the sprightly dialogue, and fine sequence of scenes of confrontation and emotional revelation in The Memory Of Water more than hold the attention through an evening, and serve to showcase some fine performances from actors we need to keep an eye on in future.

Just as is the case with Colder than Here, here we have a play that was performed with initial success some time ago, received a film adaptation, but somehow slipped back beneath the waves in its original form. Though showing its age in some respects, and perhaps a tad too long, the sprightly dialogue, and fine sequence of scenes of confrontation and emotional revelation more than hold the attention through an evening, and serve to showcase some fine performances from actors we need to keep an eye on in future.

Shelagh Stephenson has had a distinguished writing career for over twenty years. This is her first major work, and takes us back to the 1990s before her focus on the history of science began. Here we are much closer to Alan Ayckbourn territory, as we explore a series of dysfunctional relationships between three sisters and the partners of two of them. There is plenty of comedy, of both word and situation, and a similar undertow of frustrated lives and wasted energies. However, there is a lot more too than ‘absurd persons plural’……

What marks this play out for special notice is the way in which the author explores what we owe to our parents, and the extent to which we are determined not just by their hand in our upbringing, but inherited traits of behaviour and temperament that can make us take decisions in a similar way though the circumstances are – inevitably – different. Here the focus is on a mother and three daughters, but the issues explored can be generalised. We are invited to think that water retains a memory of what has been diluted in it however distant those processes and events may be.

MemoryThe play begins and each act is punctuated by the intervention of Vi (Rosalind Lailey), mother to the three daughters who are at the centre of the action. Vi has just died and it is her funeral that draws the members of the family back together and to their mother’s home. However, it is Vi in her pomp that takes to the stage and resonates in her family’s varied memories of her. Lailey captures well the poise and insecurity of a woman who seems to pass on both of those qualities to her offspring, and to have intervened with disastrous if well intentioned effect in their lives.

The three sisters bicker and reconcile both among themselves and with their partners. This could be tiresome and mechanical in lesser hands, but the actors do the writing justice, and make the most of their democratically shared moments in the spotlight, while keeping the pace and intensity up to pitch with good effect.

The key figure around whom the major plot revelations swirl is Charlotte Blandford’s Mary, the daughter who on the surface has travelled furthest from her family back ground in professional accomplishment and radical views, but who in fact is the one most mired in the events of that family past. This is a raw and emotionally testing role, and it received that kind of no-holds-barred performance from an actor with a very wide emotional and technical range.

MemoryShe is contrasted with her elder sister, Teresa (Tegen Short), the dutiful, practical daughter, who remained most loyal to her mother, and has taken charge of the funeral arrangements. However, once more there is good scope for development in this role, as her façade of control gradually melts away under the influence of uncustomary swigs of whisky. Again the actor reveals layers of aggression and vulnerability you would not have expected at the outset. It is an accomplished journey.

The youngest sister, Catherine, is perhaps presented in less convincing detail in the script, but this portrait of contrary narcissism must be a peach of a role to play, and certainly garners the majority of laughs across the evening, like iron filings to a magnet. Poppy Allen-Quarmby generates energy and striking stage movement whenever she is in view, and takes the brief chance she has at the end of the evening to layer in some more depth to the character, and provide something of an explanation for her waywardness.

The two male roles in this play are subordinated within the family but not exactly subordinate in the play. Dan Whitlam’s Mike is the outsider – a married man involved with Mary, feeling his way through the shoals of this family gathering and acting as something of a conscience figure for the audience. However he has his own independent identity and finally gets the chance to assert it.

MemoryDeclan Mason’s Frank is a good foil to him – apparently a rather down-trodden partner to Teresa, but in some ways he has a better understanding of the family dynamics than anyone, and certainly a better sense of perspective. There are some lovely comic moments here, thanks to this actor’s deft timing.

Rarely has this reviewer seen a more jumbled and cluttered set, but this is a deliberate effect on the part of director Joseph Blatchley and designer Dora Schweitzer, who want us to see into every major room in the house and convey the chaos of a house after the death of its owner. In fact the action flows generously from room to room, reinforcing the complicated family dynamics in way that once again shows the debt to Ayckbourn.

What lingers in the mind after this play has run its course, is the deft way in family relationships, the roller-coaster experience of grief, and the inherited parental precipitate we take with us through life have been interwoven and given dramatic life. This could so easily have been a cruder ‘message’ play waving slogans from on high, but in fact it scores more heavily by making us feel the intellectual and emotional contradictions as drama rather than just recognising them as paler arguments.

MemoryCast and creatives have grasped the dramaturgical imperatives and done full justice to the author’s capacious and humane framework.

The Memory Of Water
SOURCEPhotography by Clive Barda
Previous articleReview -Strangers On A Train
Next articleReview – Colder Than Here
Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…