The Memory of Water review: A revival that hasn’t aged well

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Carolina Main, Adam James and Laura Rogers in The Shape of Water  (Helen Murray)
Carolina Main, Adam James and Laura Rogers in The Shape of Water (Helen Murray)

Here’s another revival in Hampstead’s 60th anniversary season that hasn’t aged well. Shelagh Stephenson’s queasy comedy, which premiered here in 1996, sees the lives of three Yorkshire sisters implode before their mother’s funeral. A central theme is the unreliability of memory, but in Alice Hamilton’s production humour and passion seem equally slippery commodities.

Vi (Lizzy McInnerny) was a difficult woman who died of Alzheimer’s and now returns as a stiff, mannered phantom. She and her silent husband ran a hardware shop and lived in a house that – metaphor alert! – is falling into the sea. Eldest daughter Teresa (Lucy Black) is the family martyr, running a health-supplement business with long-suffering husband Frank (Kulvinder Ghir). Middle child Mary (Laura Rogers), a successful consultant obsessed with the case of an amnesiac, can’t persuade her lover, Adam James’s smoothie TV doctor, to leave his wife. Catherine (Carolina Main), the youngest, is a needy hot mess.

Fuelled by whisky and marijuana, seismic revelations come thick, fast and improbable. Of course, bereavements trigger all sorts of emotions, but here the flashpoints often feel unearned or contrived. The tone flips from sitcom-style yammering to attempts at something more profound, concerning what we choose to forget and what we can’t help carrying with us. The play is pretty funny and well observed in its depiction of sisterly dynamics and the frantic nature of grief. But the central message is vague, and the script keeps shifting ground.

 (Helen Murray)
(Helen Murray)

It takes place in Vi’s oppressively genteel bedroom, designed by Anna Reid as a parochial, low-ceilinged but spacious cell where the characters are imprisoned. Hamilton’s production is polished, and all three lead actresses have fine moments. Rogers is nicely buttoned up as Mary, Black torridly unfulfilled as Teresa, and Main hilarious as the attention-seeking Catherine. The women take centre stage even if they are defined by their relationships to men as well as to their mother.

The characters are willfully, infuriatingly inconsistent, though: heartbroken one moment, cheerful and conciliatory the next. Stephenson seems to delight in undercutting herself. Mary’s very real trauma is upstaged by Frank’s midlife crisis, in which he digresses about Inuits and Woody Allen movies. A reference to Teresa’s first husband is thrown away in a row about the lies she and Frank told on the dating service through which they met. Pathos is always subverted by bathos.

Also, the story takes place amid a blizzard that has stopped trains and diverted flights. Yet a hearse can deliver Vi’s coffin to the house one night, but can’t bring pallbearers the next. This bugged me more than I can possibly express.

The plays so far picked by Hampstead’s artistic director Roxana Silbert to celebrate six decades of radicalism have largely shown how times and tastes have changed. Engaging in parts, Stephenson’s tale feels chiefly like a curiosity.

Until 16 Oct, hampsteadtheatre.com

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