The Memory of Water
- Hampstead Theatre
- Until 16th October, 2021
Locked in a flat the night before their mothers funeral, three sisters are left the deal with the detritus of their 'imagined’ past and present, as snow, nostalgia, and troubled memories rock about; In this slow and comic tale all about grief, we watch as of sisters coming to terms with the reality of their mothers death and thir catharsis as they handle best the impending funeral…
That is perhaps the simplest possible distillation of a synopsis for such a tightly written and layered play. Six characters, three sisters, one mother, an affair, a drug user, a repressed soul, and an insipid marriage life! These elements wry in and out adding a subtext that, though not always fleshed out properly, results in a play that is as comedic as it is poignant and as touching as it is aloof.
"Memory of Water" needs no introduction to those familiar with the London theatrical scene. Written by Shelagh Stephenson in 1996 at the very same Hampstead theatre, the play has since gone on to win multiple accolades including the "Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy" in 2000 and it’s very own movie adaptation (Before You Go) in 2002. However, this shall be the last time I shall draw notice to the earlier production, considering the obvious reason that most of us were not born at the time of its release. But true to form, watching this show in 2021 it is hard to refute that its repute is earned!
The latest run, directed by Alice Hamilton and featuring Lucy Black, Laura Rogers, and Carolina Main, as the three sisters, Teresa, Mary, and Catherine, is an interesting play for a number of reasons. Dealing with a subject such as this required deft handling, both in script and in performance; especially one hoping to strike a fine balance between comic intervention and portraying true catharsis (which this paly tepidly does to some extent).
...the indulgence in their [Mary and Catherine] story lines comes across as an afterthought of the writer.
The set design is simple, featuring a simple single bed room with very minimal furnishing and a backdrop of adequately designed/lit clouds hanging over head the room. The supporting cast is equally potent, with Lizzy McInnerny (playing the mother Vi), Kulvinder Ghir (playing Frank - Teresa's better half) and Adam Jones (as Mary's married love interest). Together they play wonderful second fiddle to the three sisters, as they wreak havoc within the one room - breaking convention on every single (imagined) instance of British decorum on grieving, with their sordid drinking and insensitivity! Perhaps the point of that is - sometimes life gets in the way of grieving!
And the play does have its messy 'bits'. With three sisters around, the play does invest disproportionally in Teresa’s catharsis. Her ‘metamorphosis’ stemming from her dreamy recountings with her dead mother Vi and liaisons with Mark the night before are the pivots around which the show unarguably revolves. Hence, when and while the show takes a detour to spotlight Mary and Catherines’ arc, the play lacks a certain coherence and the indulgence in their story lines comes across as an afterthought of the writer. Perhaps much of this is intended too… but it is tough to imagine what could have been - considering how the play held well together otherwise.
However none of this is to discount the acting prowess on display! Between McInnerny's penchant monologues as Vi and Main's drunken antics (which is one for the ages); the show is filled with wonderful exuberance. Jones and Ghir take centrestage only when their role demands and linger in the background artfully at other times as the sisters enthrall us with their sibling rivalry.
Memory (imagined or otherwise) and the idea of it is what drives the story. Each character recounts a certain version of their childhood – factual or otherwise. And they are all unreliable witnesses to their own upbringing (as are we all); believing what they can rationalise as the cause of their current sorrows.
The title, derives from a clever use of plot exposition within the play (no spoilers) about the remarkable trait of water to hold its properties upon dilution and thus - Memory of Water!
At one point in the show, Lucy vouches to live with the cold. With her memories - memories of water! Snow! Cold! Cold and happy in her solace. I’d say let us bid her adieu in this wonderful play that demands a watch! Running until the 16th of October in Hampstead Theatre. Do not miss it.