Tuesday, 14 September 2021

REVIEW: The Memory of Water at the Hampstead Theatre

After 18 months, of living through a global pandemic, you’d be forgiven for thinking twice before booking tickets to see a play that focuses on grief, memory and loss. However, this Olivier award-winning comedy is exactly what the doctor ordered and is indeed inspired programming by recently appointed artistic director Roxanna Silbert. The Memory of Water which premiered at the Hampstead Theatre in 1996, is in fact, just the antidote for a covid-fatigued audience. 

Shelagh Stephenson’s sharp, witty and poignant play is about three sisters, Teresa (Lucy Black), Mary (Laura Rogers) and Catherine (Carolina Main), who after years of separation, come together before their mother's funeral. As they grapple with her passing and the ensuing breakdown of familial etiquette, different versions of childhood events and family History rise to the surface. Unable to agree on any given point of any memory, the siblings squabble and it is whilst navigating the indiscrepancies of their versions of the past, they are forced to face the present and their own hidden lies and self-betrayals. Celebrating the familial bond, it is very entertaining and farcical. However, it poses more serious questions about the (un)reliability of memory, the illusiveness of time and the devastating effects of grief which manifest differently in the three sisters.

Anna Read’s set succeeds in creating both the world of the play and a metaphor for the themes it explores. The sisters’ mothers’ bedroom, stuck in time with it’s dizzyingly warped mirrors, sits beneath a hazy sky that covers the upper half of the stage space. The sister's tussle, suspended between earth and sky, between then and now, between life and death in this room, which feels like a stagnant pond at the end of the world. 

Alice Hamilton’s production is steadily paced, allowing the writing to shine. The complex sibling relationships are believable and the action on stage is captivating. Lizzy Mcinnerny, as Vi, the girls deceased Mother, is elegant and nuanced in the role, providing authenticity and excellent comic timing. Adam James is natural as Mike, Mary’s married boyfriend and Laura Rogers brings depth and empathy to the role. The other actors play the musicality of the script well but they do venture towards caricature, especially in the second half.

Times have changed since the play was first staged 25 years ago and one moment was decidedly dated. Mike forgets Catherine’s Spanish boyfriends’ name and refers to him as ‘Xavier’, ‘Pepe’ or ‘Juan’. This joke is questionable, awkward and unnecessary and perhaps could have been reconsidered when restaging.

Blundering through a family crisis and the experience of grief is relatable for most and Hamilton’s compassionate production frequently had the auditorium filled with laughter. 

The Memory of Water is showing on the main stage at the Hampstead Theatre until 16th October 2021.

Review by Mandy Gordon

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: M 9 | Price of Ticket: £27

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