The CoPs production of The Memory of Water was the third I have seen and perhaps the highest praise I can offer is to say that this was the first time I was sure I was watching a good play.
In the long scene which forms the whole of the first half, we meet three sisters on the eve of their mother's funeral. As well as being very different in character, the sisters have conflicting memories of the events of their family past, and none of them appears to feel any warmth or empathy either for their mother or for each other.
The journey of the play takes us from here, with each sister locked in her own self centred world, to the point at the end where, just about to set off for the funeral, they have become united in grief and able to exchange more sympathetic and unified memories of their mother. They remember the "girls' nights in" they shared with her as children, and realise, for the first time, that "she must have been lonely".
The play offers four wonderful female roles, all of which were well cast. Maggie Nix had all the intellectual seriousness of the doctor, Mary, and although she was perhaps a little underpowered in Act One, when, clearly close to breaking point, she has to spit out some deliciously sarcastic lines, she came into her own in the second act, especially in the beautifully played scene with her mother.
Shelagh Ryan as the family anchor, Teresa, maintained just the right balance between querulousness and efficiency, and produced a gem of a portrayal of laid back drunkenness in Act Two Scene Two as the whisky loosened her limbs and her tongue.
The part of Catherine seems to me to be a real challenge. The character feels rather less credibly written than the other two sisters, and unless we remember that she is probably high on pot, can be seen to be going over the top. From her first ebullient entrance, Emma Muir put lots of energy into her characterisation and when, in the second half, she began to show us the softer side of Catherine, a genuinely rounded human being emerged.
Jackie Lawn, gave us a truthful picture of Vi with all her forthright simplicity. She was at her most moving at the beginning of Act Two (when Shelagh Stevenson artfully brings mother and daughter together at the same age, Vi at forty or so in the 60's, and Mary at thirty-nine in the 90's). Here Vi is allowed to put her point of view, describing the toughness of her life and the fact that in spite of her years of patience with her daughters, they had "no patience with me. No tolerance." A beautifully judged performance.
And what of the males? Did they get a look in? Or a word? Edgeways? Well, yes they did (occasionally). Stuart Handysides gave us an effectively naturalistic portrayal of Mary's easy-going doctor boyfriend, and Matt Francis, although perhaps a touch young for the part of Teresa's second husband, the long suffering Frank, really gained in strength when finally confronting her with the fact that he's fed up with being a health food salesman and wants to run a pub.
I liked the set a lot. Its shape created an excellent acting space and its angles provided the opportunity for some excellent positioning (the downstage corner of the bed, for example was particularly well used). And, while on the bed…That bed!…That suite!…How imposing, how appropriately grandiose for the room which Vi and her husband must have saved up to furnish in the 50's! Both furniture and props had a real period feel. It worried me a little that the focally placed window (with it's useful window seat) had its curtains closed, more or less throughout, apparently irrespective of the time of day. Maybe the snow factor influenced this decision? (The snow was very credible when we saw it - though I never fully believed that anybody was genuinely cold.)
Costumes were well used to highlight the different periods and the contrast between the three sisters (though I did wonder if Teresa's clothes - skirt really - should have looked quite that dowdy). Vi's dancing dresses played an important part when the girls dressed up at the end of Act One, and I thought the idea of dressing mother and daughter alike at the start of the second half beautifully highlighted the theme of the like-it-or-not similarities between mother and daughter. Costumes were still playing their part in the curtain call when, into the soberly dressed funeral line up, came mother, in vibrant electric blue - her influence still permeating the proceedings.
Like the costumes, lighting and sound contributed effectively to our perception of the different periods of the play: Vi's dancing days were evoked by her music and the change of lights to the unrealistic green enhanced the ghostly atmosphere of her appearance.
You will gather from the above that, a few reservations apart, I thought this was a very successful production. Most of my reservations apply to Act One where I felt there might have been more rise and fall in the parts between Teresa and Mary, and a little more energy at the end of the act in the build up to the hysterical, almost farcical, dressing up scene. I became totally engaged in Act Two, however, as one powerful, well played scene followed another, with the director skilfully maintaining the balance between the comic (Teresa and Frank on their meeting through a dating agency; Catherine and Frank as she tries to wrest some affection from him) and the serious (Mary on her lost child, and on her realisation that her mother lives on in them all).
Thank you to Cathie Mulroney and her cast and crew for a funny, sad, thought provoking, enjoyable evening.
Sylvia Pepper produces plays at The Barn Theatre, and works for the University of Hertfordshire