Winning the Olivier for Best New Comedy in 2000, Shelagh Stephenson’s The Memory of Water is, on the surface, a family comedy-drama about memory. Three sisters, with the typical amount of sibling dysfunction, return to their Yorkshire family home to mourn their mother Vi (Lizzy McInnerny) who had Alzheimer’s. It centers on the middle sister Mary (Laura Rogers), a doctor with a particular fixation on one of her patients suffering from amnesia, flanked by her sisters Teresa (Lucy Black) and Catherine (Carolina Main). As the homecoming churns up childhood memories, which are inevitably made murkier by the churning, the three sisters grapple with their own personal traumas.
Although the thematic underpinnings are woven a little too coarsely into the play, Stephenson’s script is at its best in the dialogue between sisters, effortlessly imbuing decades of resentment, adoration, rivalry and love into seemingly mundane exchanges. Much of the humour is the barbed kind best suited to siblings, where the prods and pokes are always a bit harsher, the sting sharper, and the laughter sometimes accompanied by a gasp. Occasionally the script jars with jokes that don’t quite land which are crudely made at the expense of two-dimensional characters off-stage.
Lucy Black as Teresa, the eldest and most dutiful of the sisters who runs a natural medicine business with her husband Frank (Kulvinder Ghir), stands out as she transforms from an uptight taskmaster to a stumbling, drunken truth-teller. Ghir as Frank is also hilarious, commenting on the sisters’ escapades with a splendid mixture of bemusement, weariness, and loyalty. And Adam James as Mike, Mary’s lover, is wonderfully bumbling and terminally polite.
The most theatrical moments come from exchanges between McInnerny as the phantom mother and Rogers’s Mary. These conversations offer a great respite from the rest of the play, cracking open the realism and allowing for a bit of fantasy within this otherwise naturalistic piece. When Mary asks her mother why she isn’t haunting her sisters as well, Vi replies, ‘How d’you know I don’t?’ Otherwise, there’s a static quality to the action — all of which takes place in Vi’s bedroom — that starts to drag especially in the second act, where the script moves into a series of monologues unearthing family secrets.
This revival at Hampstead, where the play debuted, features a plush turquoise bedroom with soft furnishings and built-in wardrobes with warped mirrors. Designed by Anna Reid, the set does a superb job of conveying the generational divide between mother and daughters, while the contorted reflections from the mirrors speak to the fickleness of memory and its impact on identity. Above the bedroom is a high winter sky coloured by clouds, a smart gesture to an outside world sometimes forgotten within insular family life.
Nonetheless, that external world ends up being important for Mary. If it’s a play about memory, it’s also a play about remedies. The title comes from a speech made by Mike, another doctor married to a woman with ME (or chronic fatigue syndrome). He explains to Mary some research he’s heard about pseudoscientific homeopathy: ‘you can remove every last trace of the curative element from a water solution and it will retain its beneficial effect’. Teresa takes vitamin pills and a ‘Rescue Remedy’ to help with her anxiety and mutters recipes she memorizes; Catherine self-medicates with a joint and retail therapy. Much of The Memory of Water is about finding coping strategies when faced with an often bleak and seemingly lifeless existence.
The Memory of Water is on at Hampstead Theatre till 16th October. More info here.