The Memory of Water is a play poised between broad comedy, mystery and a poignant sense of loss and uncertainty of identity. Grant Olding's atmospheric music and takis' set, like a raft adrift in a sea of snow, play the mystery card most effectively, but Nikolai Foster's production for the New Vic, now playing at Scarborough, leans towards the obvious comedy.
In truth Shelagh Stephenson's play, an Olivier Award winner for Best Comedy in 2000, has its unsubtle side. For instance, I find it very hard to be convinced by any play that relies on instant character transformations caused by smoking joints or drinking whisky – and Stephenson has both. On the other hand, I suspect that both scenes can be played less pantomimically than in Foster's production. The end result is that, despite three excellent actors in the main parts, I was only sporadically engaged with their characters and problems.
The action concerns three sisters shortly before their mother's funeral. Teresa has been the reliable, look-after-mother sister while still running a business with her husband. Mary is the high-achieving doctor who has pursued her career, possibly at the expense of her relationship with her mother, and Catherine seems to devote her life to seeking attention and self-gratification. The occasion of their mother's death provokes both a looking backward with the subjectivity of memory and an examination of current crises in their lives, in at least one case directly linked to recall of the past.
It's a promising premise and there are wildly funny moments and movingly intense scenes, but seldom can there have been three sisters (even in Chekhov) so susceptible to stress as these. Amanda Ryan's performance as Catherine is a tour de force in its own way, but her skipping, screaming, clutching herself in agony and rolling around in despair is all a bit too much; some delicately played scenes near the end come too late to establish the character's humanity. Mary-Jo Randle is more fortunate, having the chance to realise Teresa's blunt, no-nonsense neuroticism very skilfully before being pitched into an over-the-top drunk scene.
Mary is much the most realistically drawn of the sisters and Caroline Langrishe's finely judged performance is well attuned to the intimate setting of the In the Round theatre. Lynn Farleigh also shows telling restraint in her appearances to Mary as her dead mother and Paul Opacic and Steven Pinder are refreshingly normal as Mary's lover and Teresa's husband respectively.
The Memory of Water continues at the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough until 5 April 2014.