The Memory of Water: Hampstead Theatre
- Credit: Helen Murray
Revived as part of Hampstead Theatre's 'originals' series, Shelagh Stephenson's 25-year-old dark comedy holds up pretty well with its enduring themes of memory and motherhood.
Only the fashions, reliance on landlines, and the tension between a mother stymied by 50s womanhood, at odds with her more liberated daughters place us in the 90s. Otherwise as Lizzy McInnerny's superbly spiky Vi comments, parenting goes back to the stone age: "I got it from my mother, she got it from her mother, and on it goes."
Vi is dead and speaking to daughter Mary (Laura Rogers) on the eve of her funeral. Bickering siblings Mary, Catherine and Teresa are sorting clothes and unpacking grievances - and secrets - while self-medicating over her death.
But Vi - in her green taffeta cocktail dress and heels - keeps intruding, and through barbed, poignant exchanges, Mary starts to understand how they missed each other.
Everyone's in crisis, Lucy Black's Teresa, the practical martyr, resentful at caring for a mother with Alzheimer's, spectacularly unravels after a spliff and whisky. Needy, attention-seeking Catherine (Carolina Main) is forever throwing herself at men who treat her badly. And Rogers brings a quiet sadness to neurologist Mary, desperate to have a child with her married lover.
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While Vi envies their choices - and resents her self-sacrifice for children who shut her out - Stephenson reminds us that the legacy of female oppression echoes on.
False memories, subjective memories, stolen ones, disappearing ones and deeply imprinted ones abound in the sister's differing recollections of their childhood. And while Stephenson at times overloads her central theme - Mary is treating an amnesiac and studying memory function - Alice Hamilton's sensitive direction and rock solid performances steer a course between sometimes clashing tones of comedy and tragedy.
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A comic confession by Teresa's husband Frank jars, but Stephenson's ear for sibling banter rings true. Having recently experienced this exact scenario, I can attest that the messiness of life, memory and grief can simultaneously elicit tears and irreverent humour. 3/5 stars.
Until October 16.