THE MEMORY OF WATER
New Vic Theatre, Friday 7th March, 2014
The New Vic’s revival of Shelagh Stephenson’s 1996 play is a beautifully presented, tightly acted production. The sharpness of the writing has the characters throwing wit and sarcasm at each other – sometimes the barbed comments hit home and open cans of worms.
Three sisters of different ages and temperaments gather at their recently deceased mother’s house for the funeral. Mum herself is still knocking around, appearing to middle daughter Mary in fantasy/dream/memory sequences full of recriminations and accusations. Having a ghost in a play is as old as drama itself, of course, but the focus here is not on the apparition but the lingering pain of memory and things unspoken or old ground trodden over repeatedly. As dead woman Vi, Lynn Farleigh cuts an elegant figure and is far from the aloof and distant figure Mary remembers. The play has a theme of the unreliability of memory running through it like words through a stick of seaside rock – Mary is even a doctor with a patient suffering from trauma-induced amnesia, to strengthen this motif. Each daughter remembers a different childhood, although none of them is accurate. They trigger memories in each other but they are unsure who had the starring role in each misremembered incident.
It’s a very funny play. As eldest and most bitter sister Teresa, Mary-Jo Randle is a mixture of strength and fragility, both of which are exacerbated by her intake of whisky. She is hilarious and compelling. Caroline Langrishe is Mary, who speaks ‘properly’ as befits her profession, combining an authoritative tone with vulnerability. She snipes defensively – her affair with married man Mike (Paul Opacic) comes under more strain with the impending funeral. Langrishe, especially in her scenes with mother’s ghost, is excellent – but then, this is an excellent cast. Director Nikolai Foster gets multi-faceted performances from them and handles their contrasts and contradictions expertly.
Amanda Ryan is a treat as uninhibited youngest sister Catherine, prone to too much retail therapy, pot-smoking and continental boyfriends. She brings her sisters down to her level and they become like three children bickering, or having a laugh dressing up in their mother’s frocks. The men (Mary’s boyfriend and Teresa’s husband) are secondary figures but each has his moment. Steven Pinder is first-rate as long-suffering Frank, bemused most of the time, until he reaches the end of his tether, and Paul Opacic does well to convince as attractive but unlikable two-timing Mike.
It all takes place on an attractive set by designer takis, atmospherically lit by Ben Cracknell, surrounded by snow and frost. The coldness of the outside world is kept at bay by the warmth of family ties and the heat of family conflict.
Entertaining and emotive, The Memory of Water shows yet again the high quality of the work being produced at the New Vic. Well worth the journey every time.