The Memory of Water - Ensemble Theatre (NSW)
By Shelagh Stephenson
Reviewed by Claira Prider
Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli
27th October - 25th November 2023
- A highly entertaining and slightly morbid sisterly journey that will leave you crying tears of laughter and sadness all in the same scene -
Set in the early 1990s The Memory of Water is semi-autobiographical work written by Shelagh Stephenson which first premiered in London’s Hampstead Theatre in 1996. Following the story of three Yorkshire sisters who come together after their mother’s death, the work is messy, funny, ugly, over the top, raw and chaotic – probably similar to how you might feel if organising your mum’s funeral with your sisters.
The three sisters are slightly estranged and completely dysfunctional all while being very relatable and watchable. Mary (Michala Banas) is successful in her career, yearning for a child, and dating a married man. Teresa (Jo Downing) is the eldest sister, the responsible one who’s bitter about staying around to support their mother, and youngest sister Catherine (Madeleine Jones) is a complete hot mess.
Directed by Rachel Chant, the work takes place in (dead mother) Vi’s bedroom. Veronique Bennett’s costumes tie together era, class, and personalities while the set design depicts a pink saturated middle class 1970s-esque bedroom – a nostalgia inducing sight backed by cracked salmon-pink walls. Dripping with crystal glassware, the bedroom set has clam shell light shades, a rotary dial telephone, dusty rose velvet upholstered furniture and cushy mauve carpet. Kelsey Lee’s lighting design embraces the intimacy (and at times claustrophobia) of the setting with the use of bedroom lamps as well as theatre lights, while David Bergman’s composition and sound design utilised ethereal strings and percussion in the opening and closing scenes that embodied the unstable, floating and constantly moving feeling of water.
Photography by Prudence Upton
Embodying 90s British sitcom vibes, Act I is fast paced and packed full of shockingly raw and hilarious dialogue. The pace is necessary to maintain the sisterly chaos while they go through their mother’s wardrobe, reminiscing in her bright outfits as they begin to pack up her life. Act II develops a more reflective tone as the characters come to terms with the loss and the significance of their childhood memories.
Banas’ performance is grounded and engaging; a well-developed characterisation which embodies an aching sense of trying to nurture her inner child’s unmet needs - particularly powerful in the scene where she talks to her mum’s reflection in the mirror sitting at the dresser. Jones shone as the bubbly, irresponsible, heart on her sleeve wearing Catherine. Her meltdown was panicked, unsettling and gut wrenchingly visceral; a physicalising of trauma that was outward yet vulnerable - her performance had me shedding tears of laughter and sadness in the same breath. Downing carries the typical saint like, snobby eldest sister expectations brilliantly. Her characterisation highlights the juxtaposition between sisters and hilariously crescendos to her drunken, stoned, overwhelmed collapse into a puddle on the floor.
Nicole Da Silva performs the role of Vi, their deceased mother who is only visible to Mary. Da Silva poignantly captures the era of the role through her mannerisms and intonation giving a truly three-dimensional performance. Thomas Campbell is entertainingly pompous and whiny as the businessman husband, while Johnny Nasser brings the physical comedy via the bedroom window as boyfriend Mike.
“What I love about The Memory of Water is that it captures our relationship to memory and how that shifts over time according to everyone’s perspective,” Nicole da Silva (program note)
While the sisterly chemistry is palpable, the work felt slightly un-harmonious at times. Perhaps a reflection of how the writing has aged, or how much content is packed in. Chant’s direction leans into the comedy presenting a rollercoaster of laughs and gasps which is dynamic and entertaining and maintains our attention even though the entire play takes place in the one room. The production handles the dynamic shifts well however it could benefit from embracing more of the loss and generational changes to allow the symbolism to breathe.
Ensemble Theatre’s production of The Memory of Water is a raw, hilarious look at the journey of three adult sisters as they prepare to bury their mum. In a similar vein to Four Weddings and a Funeral where things keep going so wrong, and if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry, The Memory of Water is a highly entertaining night at the theatre.