The Memory of Water, the latest production from the excellent Abingdon Drama Club, was Shelagh Stephenson's first stage play. It was quite a debut, winning the Olivier Award for the best new comedy in 2000, and attracting rave reviews. Three sisters, gathered for their mother's funeral, bicker, compete and reminisce, the dialogue shifting swiftly between the blackly comic and genuinely moving. The action - apart from a horrifying and yet hilarious scene in which the sisters dress up in their late mother's clothes - is all in the dialogue. The essence of the play's success lies in making the characters believable and their exchanges snappy and convincing. The Abingdon Drama Club players rise wonderfully well to the challenge.
The three sisters, played by Lin Beekar, Anna McNeil and Ruth Hawkins, manage the difficult feat of being both distinct in appearance and personality and at the same time recognizably their mother's daughters. Anna McNeil in particular pulls off a bravura performance as Teresa, the daughter who has coped so far stoically with her mother's illness and death, but gets dramatically drunk as the day wears on. As Catherine, the youngest, Ruth Hawkins skilfully conveys a difficult mixture of comic self-centredness and real emotional damage. Her touchingly inappropriate outfit for the funeral itself is a small triumph on the part of the wardrobe department. Lin Beekar, playing Mary, the most outwardly successful of the three, holds the whole together with a completely credible portrayal of a feisty but disappointed middle-aged mistress, whose lover, played by Patrick Bird, does not deserve her. As Teresa's hapless husband Frank, Malcolm Ross gives an understated but very thoughtful and ultimately unexpectedly moving performance as a kind man out of his depth with the emotional intensity of the occasion.
The play's title refers to the theory that the water to which some medicine has been added may still retain its curative properties after the medicine has been eradicated from it: that water has its own metaphorical memory. The play is obviously about memories, based as it is around the sisters' memories of their childhood and their mother. But Stephenson has, for my taste, weighed down the play with myriad variations on a theme of memory: for example, the mother is said to have suffered from Alzheimer's disease, though this is far from crucial to the plot, and the daughter Mary, a doctor, is nursing a patient with amnesia.
However, Stephenson takes a bold theatrical step in having the dead mother actually appear on stage, a figure from the nineteen-fifties, trying to right the wrongs of the past, as she and Mary have (differently) perceived it. Credit is due to the lighting crew, who bring off the appearance of what is essentially a ghost in a highly effective and thankfully completely un-stagey way. The Memory of Water is a challenging and rewarding piece of theatre; the Abingdon Drama Club have done it proud.
I always feel that a visit to the theatre begins the moment you walk through the door and a warm welcome with polite and helpful Front of House staff is always assured when attending an ADC production.
The play with the unusual title (explained in the programme) began with the stage bathed in dark green lights and we (the audience) had to work out that this was a dream and that Vi was dead and appearing as a dream to her eldest daughter. Several people looked at their programme to see what was going on, so a note about the first scene being a dream would have helped.
The subject of this play was the death of a mother and the coming together of the three daughters for the subsequent funeral. This could have been quite a morbid or sad subject but in fact this play had all the hallmarks of a black comedy, as the sisters swigged back half a bottle of whiskey, shared spliffs and paraded around in Mums clothes, as a way of coming to terms with there 'lose'.
The sisters worked well together, exploring their characterisation and the emotions experienced with the death of a loved one and the close though sometimes antagonistic sister relationships. They were well cast and very believable. The excitement of performance took its toll on Katherine (the baby of the family) who was not quite as confident with her words as her sisters. There was also a strange moment when during a conversation with (dead) mother, Mary proceeded to change her clothes - I felt that Mum could move around but to maintain the 'dream' illusion Mary should have remained quietly on the bed (as if in a dream). During the second act the funeral was to be delayed by huge drifts of snow! The curtains (on the sash window) should have been closed throughout the second act to maintain the illusion of the words.
This was an excellent play by Shelagh Stephenson I loved the way the play (and of course the cast) built to several peaks and troughs playing not only with the comedy but emotions. I hope the playwright is doing more of this type of humorous but slightly black type of play.