Saturday, 21 February 2015

Theatre review: The Memory of Water

Drama school productions are officially classified as amateur dramatics, which I prefer not to review. But as everyone involved is either professional or hoping to be so very shortly, I try to review accordingly.

A case in point - there was a news story the other day about Trevor Nunn directing a student production at ArtsEd; Phillip Breen may not have run the RSC, but he has worked there a few times. For LAMDA he directs Shelagh Stephenson's The Memory of Water, which as the title suggests is a memory play. Although it's less about specific memories than about what memories are and how they work. And how often they don't work - how people who've lived through the same events remember such different things, it puts a question mark over the reliability of our own minds. It's an issue that particularly fascinates Mary (Zoë Goslin,) a doctor who's become fascinated with a young amnesiac, and is ploughing her way through weighty textbooks on the brain. For now, though, she has to concentrate on her own memories for a while, particularly those of her mother, who's just died.

She and her two sisters have returned to the home they grew up in, on a receding cliff near a small Northern seaside town; and Mary is annoyed her sisters have grabbed the spare rooms, leaving her to sleep in the dead woman's bed. But there's plenty more point-scoring to be done by Mary, Teresa (Rose Wardlaw,) a health food store owner with a martyr complex, and the narcissistic Catherine (Tilly Standing.) As they make funeral preparations it becomes apparent how differently they recall their childhoods, how they've appropriated each other's experiences (and in one instance an anecdote about George V) to best fit the narratives they've chosen. In her dreams Mary is also confronted but their mother's ghost (Eleanor Adams,) with her own interpretation of how she raised them.

Stephenson's play is probably best when dealing with these issues of memory in the abstract, as some of the second act's revelations - the various truths and half-truths kept from each sister explaining how their experience varies so much - can get a bit soapy. Although at times very funny, it's odd to think the play won the 1996 Best Comedy Olivier, as in Breen's production at least it seems much more of a drama, but one which when it strikes out into comedy does so boldly - it's acquired a borderline farcical edge by the end. Much of the humour comes once a couple of outsiders looking in arrive, Teresa's husband Frank (Sean Fox) and the married man Mary's been having an affair with for years, Mike (Chad Ellis, who spends much of the second act in a towel.)

The production is a simple one, the better to focus on the performances - although Erin Rankin's permanently murky lighting is perhaps a bit heavy-handed a nod to the play's nebulous truths. Again, though, the performances are uniformly of a standard that would make me happy to see any of the cast get professional work once their training's over.

The Memory of Water by Shelagh Stephenson is booking in repertory until the 26th of February at the LAMDA Linbury Studio.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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