The Memory of Water

Shelagh Stephenson
Coliseum Theatre, Oldham
(2010)

Production photo

Oldham Coliseum has revived Shelagh Stephenson's early play The Memory of Water, first seen at Hampstead Theatre in 1996, directed by artistic director Kevin Shaw.

Written shortly after the playwright's own mother's death, the play sees the reunion of three sisters for their mother's funeral in their mother's house, which is looking rather run-down with a huge crack in the wall and is in danger of disappearing into the sea. Mary is a doctor whom the others accuse of being their parents' favourite as she was given every assistance to go away to college. Teresa is into every kind of alternatives to real medicine and always complains that she is left to organise everything. Catherine is flighty and immature with poor quality control when it comes to men and appropriate clothing and complains that no one ever tells her anything. Of course there are clashes between the three very different personalities amongst a few reminiscences, all fuelled by a combination of alcohol and hashish.

The title comes from the bizarre principal behind homeopathy that water can 'remember' the properties of a substance even after it has been diluted to such an extent that the substance is no longer present (and only the substance the therapist wants it to remember; not all of the other things that the water has been in contact with). Memory is certainly a theme of the play as the sisters discuss their past memories but all remember them completely differently, even to the extent that they disagree on whom some of the events happened to. There are also some memories that come out that some of them would prefer had remained hidden.

Whilst it is very competently written and often funny, there are some elements that make it look like a writer's early work, for instance the rather heavy-handed metaphors of the sea, the crack in the wall and the title, sequences of witty put-downs reminiscent of an American sitcom and some overwritten dialogue with words and phrases that seem a little too clever. It also gets a little bogged-down later on with earnest discussions, but generally it has plenty of good humour and enough grittiness to the arguments to get engrossed in the issues.

Maeve Larkin is very good indeed in the central role of Mary, coming across as the most 'normal' of the female characters but with great delivery of the acidic, witty put-downs that litter her dialogue. Eva Pope is suitably frustrating and annoying and certainly a recognisable and realistic character as Teresa who gets vicious with her tongue when drunk. Catherine Kinsella is perfect as the rather childish Catherine, a type of role she has played very well at this theatre before.

As for the male characters, Tim Treslove has great patience and superbly-natural comic delivery as Teresa's long-suffering husband Frank and Paul Barnhill is also very good as Mary's married boyfriend Mike. Emma Gregory is fine as the ghost of the recently-deceased mother of the sisters who only appears to Mary, but it is questionable whether her character's appearances add anything to the play at all.

This is certainly a flawed play but one from a playwright who was obviously going to go on to write better plays. However there is plenty here to laugh at and to think about in a decent production of an interesting play.

To 5 June 2010

Reviewer: David Chadderton