The Memory of Water. New Vic Theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. 03-04-14

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Production photograph by Andrew Billington.

“I look at you and I see myself.”

Shelagh Stephenson’s play The Memory of Water is a thoughtful and perceptive look at family relationships, particularly mothers and daughters and sisters. Three very different sisters are forced to confront their shared past after the death of their mother and face the fact that our own memories are never quite the whole truth. We see things from our own perspective and construct our own story from the past, a story that is more interested in providing us with a way of making sense of who we are than telling the truth. We may not even know that it wasn’t as we remember it………… until someone else who was also there confronts us with an alternative version. Given that their perception is no more reliable than our own where does the truth lie? A major bereavement forces you to attempt to find out and this is the meat of the play. Death is a great uncoverer of secrets.

Anyone who has faced a major bereavement will see themselves in this play. The immediate aftermath is desperately sad, obviously, but it is also sometimes funny, wild and surreal. This is all there in Shelagh Stephenson’s heartfelt and honest writing- particularly for the women characters. Caroline Langrish, Amanda Ryan and Mary Jo Randle as the three sisters give the writing the truthful, emotional performances that it deserves and as their dead mother, Lynn Farleigh gives a stylish, brittle portrayal of the mother who has damaged each of them in their own ways, without ever really meaning to. All mothers do that, along with the lavishing of astonishing amounts of commitment and care, not just the few who are neglectful. It goes with the territory and is passed on down the generations. I particularly liked the scenes between Mary, the over achieving doctor whose cleverness her family had never managed to accept, and her mother.  A fascinating subject for a play and a perfect antidote to the saccharin view of motherhood that the advertising industry projects. Motherhood is a deeply complex and heart wrenching business. It is good to see a writer tackling these issues so fearlessly as they are often swept under the carpet.

The set for the New Vic’s production is absolutely beautiful and perfectly lit, a sparse setting in a pale winter landscape. The opening is a revelation which sweeps us back into the past before a word has been spoken and uncovers a setting which is strange to both us and to each of the characters in its own way. The direction by Nikolai Foster is fast and nicely paced and mixes truth and theatricality without ever becoming overdone.

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