Review of The Memory of Water at Hampstead Theatre

The bereaved homecoming is a tried-and-tested dramatic device, be it Chekhov’s Three Sisters (1901); Langford Wilson’s Burn This (1987) or Tracy Letts’ August: Osage Country (2007). Amongst heightened emotions, familial tensions and uncovered secrets, tragedy and farce have a natural opportunity to reveal themselves and intensify in the claustrophobic confines of gathering for funeral rites – especially if you can have a coffin onstage like in The House of Bernarda Alba (1936).

The Memory of Water Production Image - L-R Kulvinder Ghir, Laura Rogers, Carolina Main, Lucy Black © Helen Murray.
The Memory of Water Production Image – L-R Kulvinder Ghir, Laura Rogers, Carolina Main, Lucy Black © Helen Murray.

The production is part of the Hampstead Theatre’s ‘Originals’ season, which celebrates plays that all premiered there during the theatre’s 60-year history. It, therefore, seems somewhat ironic that The Memory of Water should feel so cosy and a bit unoriginal as a theatrical endeavour today – 25 years after its 1996 debut garnered it an Olivier Award for Best New Comedy and a West End transfer. The play itself is not particularly dated: sibling rivalry, social aspiration, disappointment and the need to forgive pre-date Sophocles and will continue to resonate as long as humans know other humans. Likewise, gallows’ humour will kick off giggles so long as grief, tension and absurdity exist. There are only so many stories, after all (and Tracy Letts got his funeral reunion play’s Pulitzer a decade after Shelagh Stephenson’s comedy won its gong). But Alice Hamilton’s revival reflects a degree of vagueness that makes murky both the hilarity and drama of these three sisters’ – Mary (Laura Rogers), Tersea (Lucy Black) and Catherine (Carolina Main) – reunion with each other and their recently deceased mother. Whilst the production is very specific about where it’s set (snowy Yorkshire coast), it doesn’t seem quite to know when it’s set.

A quarter-of-a-century may seem like the blink of an eye, but it’s a substantial enough span of time to make it worth considering if we’re locating ourselves in the present day or beholding a period piece? Without spoiling the plot, such specificity matters with respect to a range of themes including the influence of the church on an English Catholic family; how someone might gain notoriety via media; and what arriving in the professional class as a woman not born to it would require in a given era. Verisimilitude-fiends might cavil over the role of a bedroom land-line to propelling action if we are in the modern-day, but for me, that’s simply an argument to have built a more specific world through costume, hairstyling and set design as well as to have explored the possibility of going big on the poetic and metaphoric concepts rather than sort of loosely realist but actually not that realistic. Ivo van Hove knew perfectly well he wasn’t locating his National Theatre’s Hedda Gabbler in 1891 but all its production design and prop choices were painstakingly specific and coherent. Joe Mantello’s 2018 Broadway production of Albee’s The Three Tall Women also took place exclusively in a bedroom and its second act also opened with the presence of a dead woman, but Miriam Buether’s set provided consistent and constant visual force to the story beyond just being a space.

The Memory of Water offers a vivid and promising opening theatrical image – a woman wearing sunglasses in bed and talking to another woman (who we’ll learn is the deceased mother) as she rummages through drawers in a frantic search – but director Hamilton lets it peter out into a sort of indecisive studio-based televisual quality. Anna Reid’s set is expansive and detailed – Hampstead Theatre’s main stage has a joyous and unapologetic grandeur to its scale – but, along with most of Johanna Town’s lighting design – the visual elements feel literal by default rather than choice.

Hampstead’s Artistic Director, Roxana Silbert, seems at pains to point out that her theatre’s mission is ‘to shape the future mainstream’. I fear however that the mainstream has rather shaped this production away from the power of theatricality and into a much smaller and more self-conscious and anxious space, with little influence on the future.

Don’t get me wrong: this is a serviceable production of a well-written play with capable and committed performers. The staging is of a quality firmly belonging to the world of professional theatre. There are plenty of laugh-aloud moments along with trenchant drama. Nonetheless, reviving a play that has become a staple of amateur theatre 25 years after its inception is a delicate business. It does not necessarily need to be ‘deconstructed’ or ‘re-imagined’, but in order to locate and convey the heart of this play and realise its power to please and its reason to return — two-and-half decades after it first arrived – requires an agonising amount of intent and choice in all its elements that wasn’t entirely present in this production.

3 stars

Review by Mary Beer

Winner of the Olivier Award for Best Comedy, Shelagh Stephenson’s poignant and painfully funny comedy is about conflicting memories, life and loss.

Mary, Catherine and Teresa are sisters who think they share a common past. A world of disputed bicycles, midnight ice-cream sodas, Mum’s cocktail dresses and perfumed advice – a seaside childhood punctuated by the odd monosyllable from Dad. But where does reality end and family myth begin? Why has war broken out in Mother’s bedroom – and why is Vi, so recently deceased, still with us?

THE MEMORY OF WATER LISTINGS INFO
A HAMPSTEAD THEATRE ORIGINAL

THE MEMORY OF WATER
Playwright Shelagh Stephenson
Director Alice Hamilton
Designer Anna Reid
Lighting Designer Johanna Town
Composer & Sound Designer Harry Blake
Casting Director Briony Barnett CDG
Assistant Director Aysha Kala
Voice & Dialect Coach Stephen Kemble
Cast Lucy Black, Kulvinder Ghir, Adam James, Lizzy McInnerny, Carolina Main, Laura Rogers

Dates: Friday 3 September – Saturday 16 October 2021
Captioned Performance: 13 October at 730pm (with reduced capacity and socially distanced)
Audio Described Performance: 16 October at 230pm (with reduced capacity and socially distanced)
Address: Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, London, NW3 3EU
Box Office: 020 7722 9301 (Mon – Sat 10.30am – 7pm)
hampsteadtheatre.com
Suggested Age Recommendation: 14+