False memories

In Shelagh Stephenson's new play, three sisters reunite for their mother's funeral. But each harbours her own recollection of their shared childhood. By Robert Hanks
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A few years ago, French scientists investigating the claims of homeopathy found that some allegedly potent solutions were so dilute that they couldn't detect any traces of the supposed active ingredient. The explanation proposed was that the water in the solution had somehow retained a "memory" of the missing substance - an idea which hasn't gained widespread scientific acceptance, but which does provide an effective central metaphor for Shelagh Stephenson's new play, a shrewd exploration of the ways that the past, and particularly our parents, leave traces on us.

Three sisters are reunited for their mother Vi's funeral in the family home, a bungalow on a crumbling cliff-top on the Yorkshire coast (the view, one of the sisters notes, has changed as the land slips away). Staid Teresa has stayed on in the bungalow, running a health-supplements business with her husband Frank; the flighty, self-obsessed Catherine has drifted in a cloud of cannabis smoke through a series of disastrous relationships; while clever, self- possessed Mary is a GP, apparently fulfilled by her job and her long- standing affair with a (married) celebrity doctor.

Over the course of the play, Stephenson shows how they have selected, suppressed, appropriated and even falsified memories of their childhood and their parents' loveless marriage - arguments rage about who it was that puked over the TV, and whether it was switched on at the time, and which sister got left behind on the beach. Stephenson also shows how, in their various ways, all three women have tried, and failed, to deny that they are their mother's daughters.

Terry Johnson directs, and his production hardly puts a foot wrong. You can also see his influence, perhaps, in the way that Stephenson throws together learning, philosophy and some brilliantly down-to-earth comic dialogue. (Looking at the tiny coffin, Catherine is sure Vi wasn't as small as that. "Well, she must have been," Teresa points out. "They don't fold them up.") Occasionally you feel, as with some of Johnson's own work, that Stephenson wears her themes on her sleeve a bit: Mary's involvement with a patient suffering almost total amnesia feels tacked on, a not wholly convincing excuse for some generalisations about the nature of memory. The weakest parts of the play are the scenes in which Vi returns to talk to Mary - intended to be the emotional keys to the play, the dialogues with the dead turn out to be ironically lifeless.

These scenes make an uncomfortably stark contrast with the rest of the play, bursting with naturalistic life and sharp observation. The combination of hilarity and high tension gives the cast plenty of opportunities to show off their range, and they respond enthusiastically. Haydn Gwynne is outstanding as Mary - managing to convey the character's intelligence and self- possession, while at the same time signalling the underlying uncertainty and need; but there are excellent performances, too, from Jane Booker, as the sensible, intermittently crapulous Teresa, Matilda Ziegler as the bubble-headed Catherine, and Dermot Crowley as the sardonic and long-suffering Frank. It is, you guess, a play that will leave its own traces in your mind.

n To 10 Aug, Hampstead Theatre, London NW3. Booking: 0171-722 9301