Æ Review – The Memory of Water

Apr 29 2011 | By More

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LaVerne Hawthorne (Mary), Margaret Fraser, (Teresa),  Caroline Mathison (Catherine); Photo credit www.fourtheye.co.uk

Laverne Hawthorne (Mary), Margaret Fraser, (Teresa), Caroline Mathison (Catherine); Photo credit www.fourtheye.co.uk

By Thom Dibdin
Hill Street Theatre

Emotions ebb and flow with the whisky and the spliffs in Shelagh Stephenson’s brilliant The Memory of Water, which the Actors Kitchen are staging in the upper meeting hall of the Hill Street Theatre until Sunday.

It’s something of a shoestring affair from the small company. Director Adrienne Zitt doubles up as Vi, the woman whose life is at the centre of the whole play, there are a handful of staff and only a couple more than 50 seats around the thrust stage.

But, boy, this is a production which hits the spot. It is warm, energetic, thoroughly tragic and utterly hilarious while it recreates and examines both the divides between children and their parents, and the continuities between the generations. Quite specifically, it uses the baby-boom generation of those born after the Second World War to do so.

Set in a cliff-top house, overlooking the encroaching sea somewhere in East Lothian in 1996, three grown-up sisters arrive on a snowbound weekend for the funeral of their mother, Vi. While her ghost, or at least their memories of her, haunt their thoughts, her presence is reflected more directly in the characters of the three women which she has helped shape.

Laverne Hawthorne puts in powerfully sustained performance as the middle sister Mary, a 39 year-old doctor who specialises in brain traumas. She is the controlled one of the sisters, whose quick retorts and secret smiles speak of a powerful understanding of her sisters.

Margaret Fraser is equally brilliant as the eldest sister Teresa, who still lives nearby, has an obsessive dependence on alternative therapies and who isn’t really happy unless she is playing the martyr.  In a production where realism is key, she produces a particularly fine performance as Teresa hits the bottle of whisky which Mary has brought along as emotional anaesthetic.

There is less success to Caroline Mathison’s creation of the youngest, the deeply disturbed Catherine who has flown in from Spain and is waiting impatiently for a call from her fiancé. She starts off too close to hysteria, not leaving herself enough places to take the character without going off the scale. A slightly more heightened sense of Catherine’s vulnerability would boost the whole feel of the opening scenes.

Home-truths and revelations

Interaction rather than the individual characterisations are what makes this such a fascinating production to watch, however. As various home-truths and revelations are teased out over the course of the play, you get a very real sense of relationships and understandings of the three sisters, whether it is spoken or, as happens on more than one occasion, descends into the physical.

More to the point, you get their defining relationship with their mother. It might not be the one they remember, or the one they think they remember, or even the one they choose to remember. Yet all these kinds of memories build up a picture of who she was. This image which is augmented by Zitt’s strutting, cigarette-smoking Vi, who wiggles her hips around the stage in a tight emerald-green dress giving an impression, perhaps, of what she thought of herself.

They might be in supporting roles, but John P Arnold as Mary’s married lover Mike and Nick Cheales as Teresa’s husband Frank both put in strong and sustained performances. They have some wonderful little passages – Frank’s torrent of regret at his role selling alternative remedies is particularly excellent – but they never take over the stage. Which is not always a good thing: there are elements of tension between Mike and Mary which Arnold could easily play up, for example, although generally, as a director, Adrienne Zitt has got the balance right.

It is not all realism. Opening sequences to both acts bring memories of childhood to life, and in a beautifully staged sequence the sisters play dress-up with their mother’s old clothes. The key is that the company make it all seem quite natural – uncomfortably so at times.

Moreover, the Actors Kitchen have successfully transformed the meeting room of this Masonic Hall into a theatre. The seating might be difficult – and the rake non-existent – but their lighting plan and the use of what is essentially a found space is excellent. The Hill Street Theatre is a valued Fringe venue but none of the banked seating normally used during August has been available.

All told, this is a haunting piece of theatre that makes great use of a tight space as it sheds a contemporary light on a great play.

Run ends Sunday 1 May

Company website: http://www.actorskitchen.co.uk/


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