JUMP TO: Broken Biscuits
Shelagh Stephenson’s new play Harriet Martineau Dreams of Dancing could have been preachy, but instead forms an intelligent insight into the attitudes of early Victorian Britain.
Live Theatre has had a busy end to 2016, with three productions in three months. Amongst them, I had high hopes for a new play by Shelagh Stephenson. She is best known for The Memory of Water, which is a fantastic play (don’t watch the film adaptation, see the vastly superior stage version). This one, however, is the second of a Tyneside-based trilogy, a more fact-based drama with a stronger local connection, directed by jointly by her and Live’s artistic director Max Roberts. Harriet Martineau, regarded by many as the first female sociologist – and regarded by some as the first feminist – stayed in a Tynemouth boarding house for five years, unable to leave because of an illness. But was she really unable to leave?
With identity politics all the rage over large swathes of the arts right now, I did have a slight worry this play might reappropriate a historical story to put shoehorned parallels with modern political narratives first and accuracy a long way second. But instead this play takes a very different route. It does not lecture on morals, rather it explores how different attitudes were in 1848 to the issues Harriet championed. Today, it goes without saying that slavery is bad and votes for women are good. In this play, however, one issue is met with broad ambivalence and the other is a fanciful notion barely anyone given thought to. There are bizarre social expectations such as eccentric Impie, formerly looked down on as a spinster; after a ten-day abortive marriage ended with her useless husband’s death by falling pig (no, really), she’s suddenly elevated to the far more respectable status of widow. Continue reading
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.