The Memory of Water at the Vaudeville Theatre
According to Cicero, 'Memory is the treasury and guardian of all things.' And people, one presumes. For, as Shelagh Stephenson asks in The Memory of Water, who are you if you take away your memories?
Stephenson's remarkable debut play is fascinated, if not obsessed, with the power of memory. When three grown sisters return to their childhood home for the funeral of their mother, who has died from Alzheimer's Disease, their present grief becomes quickly entwined with the past. Memories are meted out, misconstrued and misappropriated. Was it Mary or Catherine who vomited drunkenly on the TV? Who was left stranded at the beach? Was mother kind or cruel? Was father quiet or cold? Each sister has a different interpretation of the family history - not to mention a lorry-load of regrets and grudges.
Alison Steadman plays eldest sister Teresa, the organised martyr and health food fanatic who becomes hilariously unraveled and outspoken at the hands of a bottle of whiskey. Samantha Bond is supercilious middle child Mary, the successful doctor and sister for whom everything has been too easy (though visitations from her mother's ghost suggest otherwise). And then there's Julia Sawalha's Catherine, now 33, but still seen as and acting like the family brat - wild, needy and unhinged.
Just your typical dysfunctional family. But, for all their bitter rivalries and differences, the sisters also share a number of similarities and saving humane graces. Each, for instance, has their phantom condition - Teresa's taste malfunction, Mary's false pregnancy, Catherine's muscle spasms - and each has their mother's blood, which courses through them and manifests itself in traits and gestures. And, of course, each has their memory which, at first divisive, is ultimately redemptive - as the casket is carried away, they at last latch onto a pleasant childhood scene they can both share and agree on.
It may all sound grim-going, but The Memory of Water doesn't stop to wallow in its despair. Stephenson has a wonderful ear for snappy one-liners and quirky character traits, and director Terry Johnson is a dab hand at wringing comedy from tragedy. Whenever one of the characters speeches veers towards the heavy-handed, another inevitably declares it “all bollocks” - which, whether true or not, prompts a laugh from the audience every time. If you're into bittersweet comedy, this play may be just to your taste.
The Memory of Water premiered at the Hampstead Theatre in 1996 and comes to the Vaudeville following a successful UK tour.