The Memory of Water review – bickering sisters stir up family ghosts

With Alex Kingston scheduled to play Dr Stockmann in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People and this revival of Shelagh Stephenson’s 1996 Olivier award-winner about three sisters, directed by Adele Thomas, no one could accuse Nottingham Playhouse of marginalising women.

But, cheering as it is to see this vibrant, funny play again, the production takes time to settle down and is peculiarly designed by Laura Hopkins.

The play shows three bickering siblings returning to the family’s Yorkshire home for their mother’s funeral – an event that reveals each of their personal crises. Mary is a 39-year-old neurologist aching to wrench her married lover, Mike, from his wife and have a child of her own. Teresa, the eldest, is an anxious control freak who runs a health food business and burns with long-buried resentments. The wildest, and possibly unhappiest, is Catherine, a hypochondriac exhibitionist who craves love and affection. The other significant character is the dead mother, Vi, who pops up in Mary’s memories.

Warm and observant … Katy Stephens and Beth Cordingly in The Memory of Water. Photograph: Marc Brenner

As the title implies, memory is at the heart of the play. We are constantly reminded of its subjectivity and unreliability as the sisters appropriate each other’s experiences and ask, almost as if we are in Pinter’s Old Times: “Can you feel nostalgia for something that never really happened?” Stephenson occasionally overloads the theme by advancing the theory that water retains the memory of things dissolved in it, and by having Mary fret about an amnesiac patient and commune with a mother who ended up with Alzheimer’s disease.

Though it bangs on a bit about its big issue, this is a warm and observant drama that suggests life is a permanent mix of comedy and tragedy. One of the most poignant moments is the revelation by Teresa’s husband – beautifully played by a grumpily stolid Stewart Wright – that he hates health food and Woody Allen films, both of which have long been the bedrock of his marriage.

It is a well-cast production and all of the performances are strong. Beth Cordingly captures exactly Mary’s mix of superciliousness and need for some form of commitment from her evasive lover (the one underwritten role, even if decently done by Nicholas Bailey).

Juliet Cowan avoids turning a drunken tirade by Teresa into a comic turn, and shows how family life is often a minefield. Jasmine Jones is sadly hilarious as the attention-seeking Catherine and Katy Stephens as Vi movingly expresses a wartime generation’s envy of an ease and freedom it never enjoyed.

My chief quarrel is with a set that surrounds the action with silky, billowing curtains that suggest we might be in a swish hotel in the south of France in high summer rather than in a bleak Yorkshire house in midwinter. Design doesn’t have to be literal, but surely it has to create a plausible world. And I was not alone in finding some of the early exchanges semi-audible because they were delivered at too high a pitch. Still, once it finds its rhythm and voice, Thomas’s production reminds us just why Stephenson’s bittersweet play lodges permanently in the memory.

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