The Memory of Water
by Shelagh Stephenson
May 5th - 12th, 2001
The Tower Theatre Company performing at the Tower Theatre, Canonbury
Director : Lily Ann Green
As the Bard
himself once famously wrote (in All's Well That Ends Well), "the
web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together." Never
were words a seemingly truer comment than on Shelagh Stephenson's
The Memory of Water, which examines the complex emotions between
mothers, sisters and daughters.
And what a tangled web this turns out to be. The raw and conflicting emotions at the heart of this play centre on the relationships between three sisters and their mother. Their hopes and aspirations, loyalties and jealousies are thrown unsparingly under the microscope in a rollercoaster of a play in which they confront their love-hate feelings both for their mother and each other.
Lifting the lid on this Pandora's box of see-sawing emotions, Stephenson shows how both mothers and daughters project their own aspirations on each other - and then feel betrayed when the reality does not live up to their rôle models. Their sense of loss then haunts them for a lifetime.
The three sisters in question - giddy and guileless Catherine, cynical Teresa and capable, even-tempered Mary - are assembling in their late mother's home on the eve of her funeral. It is a gathering set to unleash a torrent of unspoken emotions as the three look back on their own, and their mother's, lives.
Each of the four female leads - which include the part of Vi, the sisters' dead mother - has a demanding and draining rôle to play as we are swept along on the knife-edge of their emotions.
Mary, a successful doctor whose private life - dominated by her affair with a married man - is in turmoil, was well and sensitively played by Jill Fear, conveying all the hidden fears and phobias of an outwardly successful career woman who nonetheless lacks the stability - and the baby - she longs for. Her anguish over her lost son and the man who, she knows, will probably never leave his wife for her were keenly portrayed.
Rosalind Moore was well cast as the scatty and immature Catherine, who deludes herself that her no-hope relationship with a Spanish romeo is on a sure footing. This was a part demanding both comedy and pathos, both of which were amply provided. Her crumbling in the second Act when it becomes clear he has no interest in her was both painful to watch and acutely well done.
The part of Teresa, the third sister, is central to the play and was outstandingly well played by Despina Sellar. Her descent in the second Act from a strong, super-confident woman into a frustrated loser and finally a whimpering wreck unable to survive without the bottle was a bravura performance that held the audience spellbound.
Contrasting sharply with the parts of the three sisters is that of their mother Vi, who appears in the play as a young woman. While the daughters struggle with a seething cauldron of emotions that veer from rage and resentment to delusion and disappointment, their mother is a cool and curiously steely character whose sense of resignation about her offspring and her lot in life is almost palpable.
Vi appears in a series of flashback dream-like sequences as the daughters are suddenly lost in a reverie about the past while the action swirls about them. Sue Lacey showed all the elusive qualities essential to Vi's self-mocking, bittersweet view of life, and a detached stillness on stage that provided a compelling contrast with the other players. Her entrances and exits, when she glided along in a haze of cigarette smoke, were particularly well done.
This is a play very much about women, and it's no surprise that the two male parts are there almost to provide the "straight guys" to the more robust and wide-ranging female rôles. Both Mike, Mary's married lover, and Frank, Teresa's somewhat henpecked husband, are uncomplicated and phlegmatic characters who provide an almost bemused backdrop to the high-intensity turmoil of their women.
Allan Hart played Mike with just the right balance of understated presence for a supporting character who is vital to the plot but must not muscle in on his partner's key rôle. Frank - a straight-laced type who has met Teresa through a Lonely Hearts column - was a similarly tempered rôle well played by Peter Westbury.
Director Lily Ann Green displayed a strong understanding of the script and the demands of the play, ensuring that the actors gave well balanced, well pitched performances which did not overshadow each other or the core threads of the play. Good use was made of the space on stage - especially towards the end, when it is visually dominated by the mother's coffin - ensuring that the charcters never seemed crowded out.
The set - like the costumes, designed by Jude Chalk - was imbued with that musty, rundown feel of a dated sububan bedroom, and was exactly what the play demanded. Regan Hall's lighting gave the mother's ghostly reveries an underlit soft blue hue coupled with a slightly dreamy background hum to provide a subtle change of pace.
All in all, a fine production which held our attention throughout and which, dare I say, outshone Birmingham Repertory Theatre's recent tour.