The Memory of Water by Shelagh Stephenson, Nottingham Playhouse, till 18 May, 4****: Alan Geary


The Memory of Water


Nottingham Playhouse

Runs: 2h 30m: one interval: till 18 May

The Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company

Heart-wrenching tragedy and the blackest of black humour.

Along with the husband of one and the married boyfriend of another, three sisters gather for their mother’s funeral. As is to be expected in all family get-together plays, chaos ensues, and skeletons – here it’s an avalanche of them – tumble out of the cupboards.

But underlying it all is a complex exploration of the mother-daughter relationship, the subjective and fragmentary nature of memory, and much else. Shelagh Stephenson crafts the whole thing into a satisfying play alternating heart-wrenching tragedy with the blackest of black humour.

A puppet theatre for deaf children, or a funeral director with a plastic hand, shouldn’t be funny but they are. So is being stuck on a train with a man who looks like Margaret Rutherford.

The tragedy arises from the sisters not having properly known their mother, nor she them; and the sisters’ conflicting recollections of childhood.

Bereavement is a strange phenomenon; there’s no textbook way of coping with it. The apparently implausible and unseemly antics in the play – cavorting about in a late mother’s tasteless frocks, attempted sex romps on her bed – are in fact realistic.

All the acting is strong and confident, with contrasting characters, albeit with overlapping familial characteristics, sharply delineated. Jasmine Jones, as the fantastically egotistical and insecure Catherine, tottering about smoking spliffs, is the obvious example. But Juliet Cowan, as professional martyr Teresa, and Beth Cordingly, as Mary with her sad secret, aren’t far behind.

As the two men, the benchmarks of comparative normalcy by which to measure the neuroticism of the sisters, Nicholas Bailey (Mike) and particularly Stewart Wright (Frank) are excellent.

Katy Stevens’s deceased mother Vi, who died of dementia, is outstanding.

The tackily furnished bedroom set revolves from time to time, even while the action continues, which adds an extra layer of ambiguity and departure from the straightforward to an already absorbing and unsettling evening.


Mary: Beth Cordingly
Vi: Katy Stephens
Teresa: Juliet Cowan
Catherine: Jasmine Jones
Mike: Nicholas Bailey
Frank: Stewart Wright

Director: Adele Thomas
Designer: Laura Hopkins
Lighting Designer: Amy Mae
Sound Designer: Elena Peña

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