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.

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