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Review: The Memory of Water, at Hampstead Theatre

16 September, 2021 — By Lucy Popescu

Lizzy McInnerny in The Memory of Water. Photo: Helen Murray

SHELAGH Stephenson’s Olivier award-winning play is given a welcome revival at Hampstead, directed by Alice Hamilton. Set in the midst of a freezing Yorkshire winter, three sisters meet in the parental home for the funeral of their mother, Vi (Lizzy McInnerny).

Teresa (Lucy Black) is the most organised of the siblings, bossy and quick to act the martyr; Mary (Laura Rogers) is the high achiever, a neurologist in love with a married man; and Catharine (Carolina Main) is the vulnerable youngest, forever on the brink of a meltdown, who complains she is never listened to.

When things began to take a familiar turn, I realised that I had actually seen the play’s premiere in 1996. Such is the unreliability of memory – a subject Stephenson explores in various ways.

Vi’s last years had been blighted by Alzheimer’s. Mary is obsessed by a patient’s post-traumatic amnesia. When discussing homeopathy, her boyfriend refers to a study about the memory of water: “You can remove every last trace of the curative element from a water solution and it will still retain its beneficial effect.”

Mary is visited by Vi’s ghost – in her dreams or imagination – and we learn of their differences, her mother’s loneliness, her father’s silence and betrayal. As the sisters squabble, each believing their version of the past to be the correct one, we see how they have been shaped by their memories – some inevitably false – and those of their mother. They gradually have to accept that they carry Vi within them.

The Memory of Water is very much of its time – with references to Margaret Rutherford and Pan’s People among others – but its exploration of sibling rivalry is timeless. The play is a gift for the three female leads whose roles carry equal weight; each character has a moment of unravelling; and each actress is given a moment to shine. McInnerny also gives a stunning turn as the dead mother, resentful of her daughters’ neglect. They are ably supported by Adam James as Mary’s partner, Mike, and Kulvinder Ghir as Teresa’s husband, Frank. Warmly recommended.

Until October 16
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