Tag Archives: Shelagh Stephenson

“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


Photos by Helen Murray

“The Memory of Water” at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre

Shelagh Stephenson’s The Memory of Water was a big hit in the West End and won an Olivier Award in 2000. It is a clever choice for a fringe revival and a new production by Causality Theatre at the Lion and Unicorn provides a valuable chance to see it again. Director Eyal Israel gets to show us what he can do, controlling the performances and pacing the whole production admirably.

As three sisters come together for their mother’s funeral, family tensions gush forth. Sarah Borges as Mary shows a perfect understanding of Stephenson’s dark, dry humour. She tells her sister that they don’t argue, they just bicker, but Katherine Jones’ wonderfully unfolding performance as Teresa shows how wrong she is. The youngest sister, Catherine, is played by Jane Stanton, who arrives on stage as a neurotic whirlwind. Instantly establishing her character, she gives the production huge energy. Catherine’s vulnerability is never doubted but Stanton skilfully hints at a canniness that is truly unbalanced. Catherine’s narcissism brings the sisters together both to fight and have fun.

One of the things none of the sisters can agree on is the past. Their memories are fluid. Their deceased mother haunts them and seems to be getting a bad reputation, so it’s great when we get to hear her side of the story. Hilary Burns appears as a vengeful yet wise ghost. Setting the record straight with Mary she speaks out as she never did in life. Playful as well as caring and very much alive, she points out what her daughters deny but is staring at them from the mirror – what has been inherited from her.

As if all this were not meaty enough, memories meet the present for more drama. Teresa’s husband Frank (Dan Mullane) struggles to keep his exhausting wife under control and find space for his own future. Mary’s long-term partner is married. George Richmond-Scott skilfully manages to show a compassion not intended to convince us. His wife is supposed to be sick but, as the ever wry Mary points out after seeing her at a fete, “People don’t get out of their deathbed for a tombola.” Just one great line from a play as rich in humour as it is in emotion and performed with such sensitivity as to make this a night out to remember.

Until 31 July 2010


Written 16 July 2010 for The London Magazine