The Memory of Water: the mother of all car-crash plays

The three sisters are joined by their late mother for a photo

This is an old article reviewing the New Vic production I saw last year. If you are looking for the Durham Dramatic Society production that I’m directing this year, you’ll find it here.

Shelagh Stephenson’s The Memory of Water is on the school English syllabus for a good reason.

By accident or by design, I seem to keep ending up watching plays with a dysfunctional family theme last year there was the excruciating Cooking with Elivs, and before that was the equally excruciating Chalet Lines. But pre-dating both these plays is the extremely popular The Memory of Water by Shelagh Stephenson. Now, don’t worry: in spite of what the title might suggest, it’s not about an old lady who is miraculously cured of cancer by repeatedly diluting a substance in water until there’s no trace of the original substance left (although this daft theory and other old cobblers forms a sub-plot to the play). Instead, this is a reference two three sisters who used to play in the sea together on the Yorkshire coast.

Now grown up, the three sisters are back together following the death of their mother, and it would seem their mother once took part in a genetic screening programme to ensure her daughters had three specially-selected personalities to render themselves fundamentally incompatible to each other – and their mother. For a start, all three sisters have conflicting memories of the past, and who was whose favourite. There’s oldest sister Teresa who runs a bollocks “health supplement” store, and Mary, who is a highly successful proper doctor – already not a good sign. Neither does it help that it was Teresa who did all the work looking after her dying mother which Mary was busy doctoring and having an affair with a married man. Add in youngest sister Catherine, drama queen, attention seeker, and on her 78th boyfriend. Sisters do of course comfort one another in the aftermath of break up normally, but when you’ve already lost count of the number of times she’s said that this one is definitely definitely definitely the love of her life and can’t possibly go wrong this time, it gets a bit tedious.

There there’s the two men: Frank, husband of Teresa, and Mike, adulterous partner of Mary. Although only supporting characters, it’s interesting the way the two relationships are opposites. At first glance, on couple is perfect for each other and the other argue over everything. But later on, it becomes clearer than one couple stay together through thick and thin, and the other is treated by one half without the commitment expected of the other – and it’s not the way round you think it is. And not wishing to be left out of the fun, the sisters’ once-controlling mother, Vi, then makes her appearance as a ghost seen only to Mary, putting down her and her other two daughters. Yes, this is another car-crash play which is at times painful to watch.

This kind of car-crash theatre seems to be quite popular at the moment. In the last two years, we’ve had Chalet Lines and Cooking with Elvis up at Live Theatre. But although I enjoyed those two plays, neither come close to the depths the Shelagh Stephenson goes to. I’ve only just begun writing about the complexities of the characters, and I could go on and on and on. The most striking difference, however, is the way the conflict arises. In Chalet and Elvis it was one broadly unsympathetic character creating all of the tension for everyone else (both horny alcoholic mothers). Here, however, it’s more complicated. There is no single characters solely responsible for the antagonism, instead a lot of little things adding up to for a complex family relationship. This play is studied and analysed in schools for a good reason.

Does the New Vic and director Nikolai Foster do the play justice? Yes, not that there was much grounds for doubt here. As I’ve previously said, it’s difficult for competent professional companies to muck up a established classic play provided they don’t get clever and muck about with it too much. Nevertheless, the New Vic is one of the better companies for applying their own touch to plays, often through heavy choreography as was brilliantly done in last year’s The Thrill of Love. This is a more conventional play, and as such, there’s less opportunity for the New Vic to apply their magic touches with choreography, but they nevertheless find a few opportunity to add their own stamp when the ghostly Vi appears. The music is very effective, as is the lighting glowing through the floor. I have slight reservations over the casting – the age spread looked a bit too much to pass off the three women as sisters – but it’s still clearly recognisable as a New Vic piece.

It is fair to say that a lot of the play is predictable – does anyone really have any doubt which way Catherine’s romance with this Spanish lechbag is going to go? – but a lot this play is about the inevitability of what is to come. And a contrast with with Elvis and Chalet is how it ends. One play ends with a meltdown of the lead antagonist. One ends with a gag. The Memory of Water, however, end the way family things usually do: they adjust, and move on. This play might not work to the New Vic’s greatest strengths of all, but it’s still a play that suits them, and definitely worth a visit.


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