“The Memory of Water”: Hampstead Theatre

Alice Grahame in north London

At a time when many of us are preoccupied with illness, hospitals and death, the revival of Shelagh Stephenson’s first stage play The Memory of Water is timely. It premiered at the Hampstead in 1996, transferred to the West End, then New York, and won an Olivier Award for Best New Comedy in 2000 before being turned into a film. The play swerves between farce with comically precise entrances and exits, tense silences and ponderings on the nature of memory and family life. What could be soap opera is elevated to something more significant by interesting dialogue and fine performances under Alice Hamilton’s sharp direction.

 

Carolina Main, Adam James and Laura Rogers. Photo credit: Helen Murray.

 

The play focuses on the uncomfortable dynamics that exist in many families and how these are amplified at times of stress, such as sickness, death, and funerals. In this case it is the death of the mother, an enigmatic figure whose daughters remember their differing relationships with her. Her death is made all the more stressful because in her last few years she had Alzheimer’s, making everyone’s experience of her even more confusing and sad.

Three sisters (it is always three isn’t it?) are united by their need to bicker as they wait out the grim gap between the death and funeral of their mother Vi (played by Lizzy McInnerny). The tensions caused by birth order, age difference, and parental behaviour are unavoidable. The bossy older one Teresa (Lucy Black) is married, stable, in a sensible but dull job, put-upon, and resentful. The middle sister Mary (Laura Rogers) is a high-flying doctor and academic – socially superior but hopeless with relationships. The chaotic, troubled youngest Catherine (Carolina Main) struggles to settle into a steady job, relationship, or home. The pre-existing hierarchies are amplified and challenged. Despite being independent adults they revert to childhood roles, just like families do at Christmas. The unreliable witnesses all recall details differently: Who was the favourite? Who was abandoned on a beach on holiday? What really happened to the family cat? Some shocking hidden secrets are revealed.

 

Adam James as Mike. Photo credit: Helen Murray.

 

In some ways the play shows its age and must be seen as a period piece. The Memory of Water was one of the first plays to deal with Alzheimer’s disease. In the programme notes the playwright admits she is no expert on the condition. Since the 1990s scientists have shed light on brain function, and someone writing today might have delved beyond the best-known symptom of memory loss. Another theme that hints at the 1990s setting is the discussion of alternative medicine. The play’s title is itself is a reference to homeopathy.

Set designer Anna Reid creates an oppressive bedroom, from which we are never allowed to escape. The walls, in a 1950s duck egg hue, entrap the characters, as outside snow makes leaving impossible. The decor includes built-in Formica cupboards, matching dressing table, and a built-in wraparound wardrobe that creates a foreboding coffin-like structure. The addition of flowery wallpaper, satin sheets, and heavy curtains creates an ambience in which it impossible to relax. The array of mirrors hint at the narcissism of the deceased and her children. When the daughters rummage through their mother’s wardrobe we get a glimpse of some outrageously frilly cocktail frocks. Mum was clearly someone who aspired to a glamorous life. She eventually has her say – revealing that despite a cheerful dress collection she was as miserable and unfulfilled as everyone else.

The lighting (by Johanna Town) is suitably gloomy and creates some terrifying ghostly images – which at one point make the audience jump out of our seats. It reminds us that although the memory of a mother might fade, a trace of her will always be present in her descendants.