The Memory of Water at Hampstead Theatre
The Hampstead Theatre’s artistic director Roxana Silbert has chosen The Memory of Water as another of the “Originals” series to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the theatre. It opened in 1996 as a debut play by Shelagh Stephenson – at the time an unknown writer – and was a standout success, winning an Olivier, transferring to the West End and Broadway, and even being made into a film.
25 years later, the new staging has been intelligently directed by Alice Hamilton. The story is about three sisters in the days leading up to their mother’s funeral and the strange, unpredictable beast that is grief. Stephenson, herself one of five sisters, nails the giddying patter of long histories that swirl beneath the surface of familial relationships and the plucking of strings that are invisible to outsiders.
The action is all set in mother Vi’s bedroom, a tour de force of chintzy delusions of grandeur in greens, satin and botanical pictures. Anna Reid’s set and costume design are note perfect for the era and the intended feeling – one of heavy memory, both comforting and oppressive.
The central performances are excellent. Lucy Black is tightly wound as the oldest, Teresa, the one who did the caring for their mother as she suffered from Alzheimer’s. Laura Rogers is Mary, the clever middle daughter who is a doctor. Carolina Main is the youngest, Catherine – at 33 still with the overblown and narcissistic body language of a teenager, rushing in to gabble about her recent purchases. It’s difficult to nail the energy and histrionics of the perpetually unreliable like this and Main does it brilliantly, at one point sliding backwards off the bed like a limp toddler when the conversation bores her.
The sisters’ mood ricochets wildly, from bickering over disputed memories (did they happen? Who did they happen to?) to helpless laughter. The end of the first act sees the three in a heap of whisky and marijuana-induced mirth, trying on their mother’s clothes as Teresa’s husband Frank (Kulvinder Ghir) walks in, bemused. It is the best moment of the play: funny, poignant and true.
Adam James plays Mike, the married doctor, TV-famous, with whom Mary is having an affair. He imbues Mike with the right amount of smarminess and selfishness. Frank delivers a funny and bizarre monologue about a 14-hour journey, part of which involved involuntary conversation with a puppeteer. The meandering nature of the script describes life well: it veers unpredictably with non-sequiturs and resurfaced memories. The writing is still sharp, funny and well observed, and the central theme of the reliability of memory is an interesting one.
Photos: Helen Murray
The Memory of Water is at Hampstead Theatre from 3rd September until 16th October 2021. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.