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The Memory of Water at Hampstead Theatre | Review

It’s nearly a quarter of a century ago that the playwright Shelagh Stephenson scored an enduring hit with this early play at Hampstead. Round the world it went, justly praised for its portrayal of siblings struggling with each other and themselves in the wake of their mother’s death. With hurtful legacies at the heart of their gathering, memory itself justified its place in the title and became a virtual, controversial character in its own right.

The Memory of Water Production Image - L-R Kulvinder Ghir, Laura Rogers, Carolina Main, Lucy Black © Helen Murray.
The Memory of Water Production Image – L-R Kulvinder Ghir, Laura Rogers, Carolina Main, Lucy Black © Helen Murray.

This it still does in a witty, unsparing revival at its theatre of origin. Given the subject matter, it begs the old chestnut of nostalgia not being what it used to be. The short answer is that the practise of poignant recall is alive and well; the longer, more unexpected one is that memory itself is upstaged by the cares, indeed terrors, of the three technically grown-up girls.

With inevitable shades of Chekhov’s trio, here they are at their mother’s place, awash in the stuff, material and emotional, of her passing. We even have her coffin coming to lodge for a brief stay beside the bed, the woman herself standing next to it and hectoring away as if she’d never gone. Memory made flesh. The location of the East Coast is even eroding in sympathy with the family.

The relationship between the “girls” is the inevitable heart of the matter. The eldest, Teresa, who runs a health food business, could be categorised by the then horribly fashionable term of control freak. Then there is Mary, a pushing-forty neurologist trying, and failing, to wrest her lover Mike away from his wife and have children of her own; and the often embarrassing youngest, Catherine, a needy hypochondriac and, worse still, failing show-off.

There are blokes. Brave ones, you could say, except that Mike, with three children and a vasectomy to his name, is a cake-and-eat-it sort of charmer. There is Frank, welcomely blunt as his name, whom Teresa got off a dating outfit. Catherine meanwhile suffers a brusque phone-jilting from abroad as everyone looks on. Cruelly compulsive viewing; audience as voyeur.

Hard to say whether this has matured into a recent period-piece or whether it has simply dated and gone a touch documentary as a result. The reason for asking such a question is there in the title. Water is not so much being
remembered, like childhood seasides, as being portrayed as the holder of its own recollections. This is Mike on the subject; playing to the family gallery of course, but holding the floor with interesting matter about recent research work into the efficacy of homeopathy: “…and what they came up with, after months and months of apparently stringent tests, was that you can remove every last trace of the curative element from a water solution and it will still retain its beneficial effect.

On he goes, to his patiently captive audience: “And they decided that this meant water was like magnetic tape. The water had memory. That water had memory. You can dilute and dilute and dilute, but the pertinent thing remains.
It’s unseen, undetectable, untraceable, but it still exerts influence. It wasn’t just a shot in the dark.

In fairness to the speaker, he goes on to distance himself from such “complete bollocks,” but not before he, and Stephenson, have given us the glimpse of a metaphysical conceit that might lend gravity to their delvings. No such devices are necessary; not when these characters are upstaging memory itself with their eloquent presentness.

In this process, director Alice Hamilton draws tremendous performances from her cast of six, with Lucy Black outstanding as Teresa, the eldest child striving for authority – over herself as much as her sisters – in a world turned enticingly motherless.

4 stars

Review by Alan Franks

Winner of the Olivier Award for Best Comedy, Shelagh Stephenson’s poignant and painfully funny comedy is about conflicting memories, life and loss.

Mary, Catherine and Teresa are sisters who think they share a common past. A world of disputed bicycles, midnight ice-cream sodas, Mum’s cocktail dresses and perfumed advice – a seaside childhood punctuated by the odd monosyllable from Dad. But where does reality end and family myth begin? Why has war broken out in Mother’s bedroom – and why is Vi, so recently deceased, still with us?


Playwright Shelagh Stephenson
Director Alice Hamilton
Designer Anna Reid
Lighting Designer Johanna Town
Composer & Sound Designer Harry Blake
Casting Director Briony Barnett CDG
Assistant Director Aysha Kala
Voice & Dialect Coach Stephen Kemble
Cast Lucy Black, Kulvinder Ghir, Adam James, Lizzy McInnerny, Carolina Main, Laura Rogers

Dates: Friday 3 September – Saturday 16 October 2021
Captioned Performance: 13 October at 730pm (with reduced capacity and socially distanced)
Audio Described Performance: 16 October at 230pm (with reduced capacity and socially distanced)
Address: Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, London, NW3 3EU
Box Office: 020 7722 9301 (Mon – Sat 10.30am – 7pm)
Suggested Age Recommendation: 14+


  • Alan Franks

    Alan Franks is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows, as well as reporting on press launches. Alan Franks was a Times feature writer for more than thirty years, specialising in the arts and interviewing many leading actors, writers and directors, including Arthur Miller, Peter Hall, Woody Allen, Judi Dench and Stephen Sondheim. He is the author of several plays, including The Mother Tongue starring Prunella Scales, and his latest novel, The Notes of Dr. Newgate, is published by Muswell Press. http://www.alanfranks.com

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