Tag Archives: Lucy Black

“The Memory of Water” at the Hampstead Theatre

As part of the “Hampstead Originals” season, celebrating significant pieces that started off at the venue, this new production reminds us why Shelagh Stephenson’s 1996 play is popular. A satisfying comedy drama and a gift to performers, The Memory of Water has plenty to please.

Within the scenario of three sisters together before their mother’s funeral, Stephenson injects a surprising amount of comedy with a superb ear for dialogue and strong characters. Take your pick from doctor Mary, health food entrepreneur Teresa or the troubled, younger, Catherine. Each has an appeal. And there are three top notch performances to enjoy – from Laura Rogers, Lucy Black and Carolina Main – each a careful detailed study.

The Memory of Water at the Hampstead Theatre
Lucy Black, Carolina Main and Laura Rogers

There are good jokes, inappropriate reactions and a down to earth humour that is great fun. Stephenson examines sibling relations with confidence and risqué insight. Meanwhile the theme of memory proves stimulating (if not particularly subtle when it comes to Mary’s research into amnesia) as the sisters’ recollections of their past, and their mother, diverge.

After the interval, The Memory of Water gets bolder and darker. Painful truths and shocking secrets are revealed. The grief within the play becomes multi-layered. And we start to take Catherine’s health problems more seriously. Harsh words are spoken and the action is frequently gripping.

It is with quieter moments that director Alice Hamilton’s command of the play is clearest. While the comedy is strong (with Catherine’s tantrums, Teresa’s neurosis and Mary’s deadpan lines) it’s the pacing of more dramatic scenes that really impresses. Ever alert to the space the text needs, and aided by Johanna Town’s lighting design, Hamilton guides the audience magnificently. Given Sam Yates’ success with the venue’s previous show, Hampstead Theatre is clearly a home for directing talent.

The Memory of Water at the Hampstead Theatre
Kulvinder Ghir and Adam James

While there’s no doubt that The Memory of Water is a play focused on women, and their relationships with one another, Stephenson deals just as well with the men we meet. Indeed, even the girls’ father, long dead, is a vivid presence. Again, there are great roles for Teresa’s husband and Mary’s married lover that Kulvinder Ghir and Adam James do well with.

A final strength with The Memory of Water comes from the ghostly role of the girls’ mother, Vi. Played by Lizzy McInnerny, with a particularly fine study of her character’s accent, her interactions with Rogers were my favourite scenes. Vi is far more than a foil for her daughter: gifted her own voice, showing us a previous generation, and adding a twist to what we have seen. Vi is funny and hurt while her maternal legacy and suffering from Alzheimer’s takes us to the heart of the play’s theme. Stephenson’s description of the cruel disease, that Vi feels “broken into islands”, is brilliant and moving. As Vi’s influence on her daughters becomes clearer, McInnerny becomes magisterial. Despite Mary’s request, Vi is “never” really going to leave her daughter; like the play, she is a woman to remember.

Until 16 October 2021

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photos by Helen Murray

“Drawing the Line” from #HampsteadTheatreAtHome

The history and politics of the Indian Partition may be messy as well as tragic, but this play about the five weeks leading up to independence by Howard Benton, first seen in 2014, is a neat one. The “impossible task” of dividing a subcontinent and the creation of Pakistan is made into a traditional, efficient and fascinating drama.

The sensible move is to make such a global event a personal story, focusing on Cyril Radcliffe the judge who literally drew the lines on the map. It makes a starring role that (the sadly late) Tom Beard shines with and gives the audience an effective focus. Beard makes a fine narrator with a character that’s engaging and self-deprecating. There’s a believable touch of ego behind a likeable man. That this unusual innocent abroad knows “bugger all about India” is historically awful, but it endears him as a dramatic character. As pressure mounts Beard gets better and better, showing Radcliffe’s vulnerability and determination. As it dawns on him that that he is a “patsy”, and a lonely one at that, we are shown an honourable man it is hard not to feel for.

There are problems with the other characters – a collection of famous historical figures – that the cast struggles with valiantly. While the future Pakistani leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Silas Carson, pictured top) comes across as too manic, Indian’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru is too much the consummate politician. Louis Mountbatten, last Viceroy of India, and his wife are given a lot of work to do and, while Andrew Havill and Lucy Black give strong performances, it’s difficult to care about their characters. The staff helping these (too self-consciously) political giants prove more interesting: there is strong work from Nikesh Patel and Brendan Patricks, whose characters work for Radcliffe but have partisan agendas and follow their own consciences.

Benton generally keeps anecdote to a minimum with some surprisingly light touches. With Howard Davies’ skilful direction, the action is clear and interest never flags. Davies also excels at creating a sense of tension with minimal staging or effects. The only slip comes with Radcliffe’s reading of the Bhagavad Gita, a potentially interesting thread that seems bungled, with a brief appearance by Krishna himself.

Understandably, Drawing the Line struggles for a conclusion. The aim of an “honourable end to Empire”, given hindsight, can’t create much tension. But Brenton isn’t scared of scandal or conspiracy and he uses both well. There’s the militant Gandhi and the Mountbattens’ private lives to spice things up. How much both really influenced or could have changed events seems open questions: flippant as both titbits may appear, they make for good theatre.

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Available until 19 April 2020

Photos by Catherine Ashmore

“The York Realist” at the Donmar Warehouse

The clue is in the title. Peter Gill’s romantic drama shows us a Yorkshire farming family, in the early 1960s, with daring verisimilitude. The love affair between a visiting theatre director, working on a production of the Mystery Plays, and a local amateur actor in his cast, opens up a time and place with startling particularity. Every lyrical line rings true – many will raise a smile, other are heart breaking – with a tone that is bravely quiet. It is in understanding this understatement that director Robert Hastie shows his appreciation and secures a superb revival for the piece.

The two well-written lead roles result in wonderful performances. Jonathan Bailey is the arty thespian, out of place in the countryside, carefully controlling the character’s urbane sophistication to make sure he is vulnerable and hugely likeable. Ben Batt is local farmer, George. It’s hard not to see him as heroic, a fantasy figure, so Batt does well to reveal depth: an amount of arrogance, some selfishness, a little fear behind the confidence all make him as intriguing as he is believable. The erotic tension between the men is palpable – this is a sexy play, and it’s remarkable to note we only see the two men touch once.

Being so low-key places particular demands on a cast. It’s an achievement from the whole ensembles to embrace the nuances in Gill’s writing, and conveying that restraint isn’t the same thing as repression. Lesley Nicol gives a stand-out performance as George’s mother, only hinting at her ill health in a fashion that strikes a chord with anyone who has had older relatives who are sick. The relationship with her son is a second love story in the play, equally rich in detail and resonance. And Lucy Black and Katie West give strong performances as two other women in George’s life, his sister and potential fiancée, both fully realised and offering yet more insight into the time and community.

The York Realist is a nostalgic piece, and whether this is good or bad is a matter of taste. Inspired by Gill’s own time working in York, a look back at his youth and a bygone age is bound to have a rosy tint. And there’s the period detail in Peter McKintosh’s meticulous set. Seeing the production at the Donmar (it transfers to Sheffield) the north-south divide often alluded too gets a few too many middle-class laughs. But the play itself is refreshingly free of condescension towards working-class life. There is a sense of calm that shows the steely determination in the writing: only one reference to the police indicates the illegality of the men’s acts, and George is comfortable with his sexuality so any angst is minimalised. What happens to the romance is sad, no doubt, as it’s the distance in class that separates them. But there’s little trace of the victim about either man, making the play an empowering, memorable pleasure.

Until 24 March 2018

www.donmarwarehouse.com

The production then transfers to Sheffield Theatres until the 7 April

Photo by Craig Fleming