The Greville Theatre Club

The Memory of Water

by Shelagh Stephenson

May/June 2004

Directed by
Jan Ford


Review: James Tout

Family relationships strained at a time of bereavement seem like depressing themes for a two-hour stage production.

But these issues underpin Shelagh Stephenson's The Memory of Water, performed by the Greville Theatre Club at Little Easton's Barn Theatre on Thursday.

The play won the Olivier Award for best comedy in 2000 and focuses on three sisters' responses to their mother's death in the days before her funeral. The title is taken from a theory, mentioned in the dialogue, that water has a degree of memory, retaining the healing qualities of medicines added to it after they have been removed.

The action takes place in the deceased matriarch's bedroom and meanders along a tortuous path of arguments, reminiscences and mirth, as the sisters bicker their way through their collective memories.

Eldest sister Theresa bemoans being left with responsibility for the ailing, senile mother in her final years, while studious middle sister Mary seems preoccupied with her doctoral work and affair with colleague Mike. Wayward youngest daughter Catherine provides the play's entertainment factor, with a series of drug-induced outpourings about her "deprived" childhood and perceived mistreatment by her sisters.

The slightly unrealistic reactions at a time of supposed grief limit sympathy for the characters, as they wallow in bouts of self-pity fuelled by frequent swigs of a whisky bottle. Nevertheless, some interesting thoughts about the nature of memories and the meaning of loss arise, with plenty of laughs to keep the action fluid.

A couple of twists liven up the drama, including a revelation about Mary's teen pregnancy and the marital strife between Theresa and convenience-husband Frank. The ghostly presence of the mother, played by Jan Mitchell, injects a degree of poignancy into the second act, demonstrating the unconscious influence she had over the lives of her daughters.

Marcia Baldry, who played Mary, gave a strong performance which got better as her confidence grew. Yorkshire lass Theresa was brought to life convincingly by Diana Bradley and Carol Parradine's depiction of the hopeless Catherine was reminiscent of Jennifer Saunders in Absolutely Fabulous.

The supporting male roles of Mike and Frank, played by Steve Bradley and Adam Thompson, were well-carried, despite their relative unimportance. The play was directed by Jan Ford.



Review by Pat Rudkins

This is another must-see production - an adult, comic tragedy about three disparate sisters who come home to bury their dead mother. That is only the starting point, though; what follows is riveting entertainment.

Playwright Shelagh Stephenson writes with such arresting skill about home truths - from adultery to Alzheimer's - that they provoked laughter, poignant oohs and spontaneous bouts of applause, sometimes at the same time, from the first-night audience.

Jan Ford directs this emotional and physical roller-coaster at a superb pace, in which the pauses are given as much importance as the dialogue. Richard Pickford's crew redress David Faithfull's detailed set, including Karen Ashton and Judy Lee's colourful costumes, with a speedy efficiency that complements the action.

The acting is amazing. Carol Parradine proves her performance as Shirley Valentine was not a one-off - her portrayal of wild child, Catherine, conversely desiring a permanent man in her life, builds up a lovely head of steam.

Marcia Baldry's Mary, meanwhile, is the linchpin of the plot. Her medical character reveals the play's title and asks: "Can you dream smells?" Baldry discards her emotional and physical layers with compelling honesty to Mike, her lover, a suitably bewildered Steve Bradley. Diana Bradley is completely convincing, too, as stay-at-home Theresa.

Her duologue with husband Frank, which begins by accusing him of having a "whole repertoire of silences", is a joy. the charismatic Adam Thompson plays the object of derision with a perfect match of facial and vocal features.

Jan Mitchell completes the cast and meets the challenge of her ghostly role with amusing dignity. My, how some of Vi's barbs made this daughter wince.

The Memory of Water won an Olivier award; on this outing it is easy to see why.