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The Memory of Water

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The Memory of Water, by Shelagh Stephenson, was directed by Jane Jones, assisted by Jean Olney, and performed at The Edward Alleyn Theatre, Dulwich College, from 5th to 8th April 2017.



Vi - Lucinda Lane
Teresa - Louise Norman
Mary - Alex Curran
Catherine - Louise Haines
Mike - Andrew Cunningham

Frank - Stefan Novak

Review by John Hedley

Three sisters convene at the crumbling family home for the funeral of their widowed mother. They have never got on – “We don’t argue, we bicker.” 

Each sister is facing a crisis in her relationship with the man in her life, while coming to terms with the death of their mother and the related guilt, recriminations and remorse. Memories of childhood and their parents are vivid but disputed – whose memory is true, whose is false? Do their divergent memories explain how they have come to be the very different women they are? Is heredity homeopathic? Just as homeopathic medicine is reputed to retain its healing qualities, regardless of how often it is diluted, so the passage of time can never fully eradicate the effect of memory and the traces of personality we inherit whether our memories are accurate or not. The water of memory may flow in a stream of consciousness or a flood of tears.  

Shelagh Stephenson’s play explores these issues with a dialogue of searing intensity and biting humour. The women must find their own way forward, as the ineffectual / indecisive / absent men in their lives only make matters worse. The first challenge faced by the Dulwich Players and Director Jane Jones was to cast three women as credible sisters – and this was triumphantly achieved as Alex Curran, Louise Norman and Louise Haines gave performances that were brilliantly believable. Their terse, rapid exchanges were delivered with a sharpness and familiarity that quickly revealed the underlying tensions and history between them. At times each seemed to be vying for the audience’s sympathy and support against the others. It was one of those theatrical experiences where the audience is concentrating intently, hanging on every word.

Wading gingerly into this maelstrom come two of the men. Mary’s long-term married lover is Mike, played with admirably irritating indecision by Andrew Cunningham, who will never leave his wife and whose hitherto secret vasectomy makes Mary’s belief that she is pregnant problematic. The other is Teresa’s husband and failing business partner Frank, played by Stefan Novak with an ever-increasing sense of anger and despair, back from yet another sales conference in the Third World, dispiritedly “persuading people who haven’t seen a banana for six months that what they need is royal f****** jelly”.  When the emotionally brittle Catherine is unceremoniously dumped on the telephone by her Spanish boyfriend she demands to know: “What is it with men? I mean, I don’t have a problem with men or anything. I love men. I’ve been to bed with seventy-eight of them, I counted.” 

Is the sisters’ unhappiness in adulthood a consequence of their upbringing? Their mother, Vi, played with understated ethereal elegance by Lucinda Lane, appears in the opening scene. Only gradually does the audience realise that this is the dead mother. At intervals she wafts into the consciousness of Mary, demanding to know where she went wrong as a mother and why she was excluded emotionally by her daughters as they were growing up – “I could tear you apart with my teeth. All of you. You behave as if I’d had no hand in the making of you.”

The tension builds with the revelation of a family secret – that Mary, at the age of 14, gave birth to a baby boy, Patrick. Vi made her give him up for adoption. The father is not identified, but the audience catches a hint pointing at Mary’s own father, a silent, brooding presence in their childhood. Vi also ensured that the youngest sister, Catherine, was kept in ignorance of all this. Mary’s constant yearning for her child and helpless wondering what has become of him leads to one of the most poignantly dramatic moments of the play when Teresa reveals a further secret - that Patrick died in an accident aged 8. Mary’s wrenching grief as she reads the old newspaper cuttings turns to an icy realisation that she is ultimately alone in the world. She gives Mike an ultimatum to leave his wife. When he prevaricates she turns from him – “What are you going to do?” he asks. “Learn to love the cold” she replies, as the stage goes dark and a window blows open with a flurry of snow.

A play of this emotional intensity can only be successful if each actor is totally convincing and totally engaged. Any weak link would bring the whole structure down. The Dulwich Players are fortunate to have such a pool of acting talent. Jane Jones’ tight direction ensured that the pace never dipped. Ian Jones and the backstage team are to be congratulated for the atmospheric sound effects and set, a bedroom complete with fading wallpaper, an ominous crack in the wall - and a beautifully crafted coffin!

This was a splendidly moving performance of a relatively unknown but brilliant play, that leaves the audience drained but ultimately uplifted.

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