Theatre: Skeletons at a funeral

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FUNERALS ARE handy functions for a dramatist, providing the perfect excuse for yanking back into tense proximity people who are still fizzing with unresolved conflicts from a shared and much disputed past. Pop a corpse in a coffin and out of the cupboard a skeleton is bound to tumble.

Or rather, a whole slew of skeletons, in Shelagh Stephenson's often wickedly funny and moving play The Memory of Water, in which three sisters return to their Yorkshire childhood home for the interment of their mother. Tempers aren't improved by the snowy weather or, for one of them, by the recurrent appearance of the mother's ghost.

A riotously well-observed look at the social stresses of bereavement, the play is also a shrewd meditation on the subjective, competitive and self-preserving nature of memory that so often distorts and tailors recollections to fit in with a personal agenda or sense of grievance. It was a big hit three years ago on its first airing at Hampstead.

Someone has had the commercially smart idea of reviving Terry Johnson's production with starrier principals and now, after a successful regional tour, it arrives in the West End. The casting is cunning in that two of the actresses are already lodged in the public mind as fictional daughters: Samantha Bond from Amy's View and Julia Sawalha from Ab Fab. Bond brings a fine, caustic superciliousness and an air of heartache to the role of Mary, the posh, high-flying doctor and victim of her own success who harbours a boyfriend who won't leave his ME-stricken wife, and a painful void left by the baby she was forced to give up at the age of 14. Bond is perhaps a bit generalised and over-actressy, her pukka tones rarely lapsing, as they would, into Mary's original northern accent in moments of unguarded emotional intensity. But she is a credible irritant to her siblings - Sawalha's druggy, promiscuous and manipulatively hypochondriacal Catherine, and Teresa, played by Alison Steadman in magnificent form.

A frantic health food freak who pops "completely organic" nerve pills, Steadman's Teresa puts on one of the best displays of mountingly drunk behaviour I have ever seen. As unstoppable as the whisky bottle she is gripping, she gives vent to home truths of wildly variable accuracy. Then, heaving her slumped head up from the bedspread, she demands: "How could you do this to me?"

Johnson's highly entertaining production keeps skilful control of the tone, which has to encompass everything from whooping, drug-fuelled high jinks, as when sorting mother's things out turns into a giddy fashion parade, to Mary's troubled meetings with Margot Leicester's revenant spirit.

The production can't disguise the fact that the dramatic current flows with a fluctuating strength, or that the ghost is a bit de trop, or that some of the themes sit a little lumpily on the proceedings. But Stephenson has a sure instinct for the quirky side of life (one character arrives having spent six hours trapped on a train with "a woman from Carlisle who runs a puppet theatre for the deaf"), and is certainly a talent to watch.

A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper