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The Memory of Water

Shelagh Stephenson
New Vic Theatre Company
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme

The cast of The Memory of Water

One of five sisters, Shelagh Stephenson wrote her first play The Memory of Water shortly after the death of her mother in the mid-1990s. There is an old saying that authors should write what they know about—so Stephenson bases her play on three sisters being brought together for their mother’s funeral.

There is the potential for a sentimental examination of their childhood reminiscences as each sister has a different recollection of what actually happened.

But Stephenson’s realisation that setting the play on the eve of the funeral would maximise the humour and absurdity of their situations is a master stroke.

The Memory of Water won an Olivier Award in 2000 for best new comedy and was voted UK play of the year in 2001. On the strength of Nikolai Foster’s revival for the New Vic, it’s not difficult to see why.

He has assembled a vastly experienced cast who deliver a sparkling production which is full of pathos, poignancy and humour.

There could hardly be three more different sisters than the ones portrayed by Stephenson and layer upon layer is stripped from their tangled lives the longer the play goes on.

Mary-Jo Randle excels as the oldest sister Teresa. Initially she is angry and frustrated that as usual she has to do everything, single-handedly making all the arrangements for the funeral. She was the one who cared for their mother as she succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease, with the other two sisters nowhere to be seen.

In the second half she gives a wonderful portrayal as her frustrations lead to her seeking solace in whisky. Her drunken mannerisms develop gradually as she staggers around the stage and uses an array of facial expressions to great effect.

As alcohol and cannabis are plentifully consumed, the other sisters come into their own. Caroline Langrishe is equally impressive as Mary, the neurologist obsessional about her work whose affair with a married TV celebrity doctor comes under increasing scrutiny.

Her reaction when she is told about the fate of the son she had to give away when she was a teenager is heartbreaking.

Amanda Ryan also makes an impact as youngest sister Catherine, a selfish, neurotic young woman whose choice of men is about as wise as her selection of an outfit for the funeral.

Lynn Farleigh appears periodically as the ghost of Vi, the mother who has a different take on the past. She is portrayed as someone who was fond of enjoying herself rather than looking after her children. However, she gains sympathy as she recalls the problems caused by the onset of dementia.

As for the men in the production, Steven Pinder as Frank, Teresa’s husband, gives a solid performance, especially when he becomes outraged that Teresa has taken to the bottle.

Paul Opacic gives a more understated role as Mike, the lover who continually finds excuses not to leave his wife to set up home with Mary.

Nikolai Foster says directing The Memory of Water with such a tremendous group of actors in the New Vic’s dynamic space has been a rare treat. It’s also a treat for the audience, although it’s not such a rare thing these days at the Staffordshire theatre-in-the-round.

Reviewer: Steve Orme