Theatre: Sometimes, bigger really is better

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The Memory of Water

Vaudeville, WC2

I Weep At My Piano

BAC, W11

There must have been a moment when Alison Steadman was reading the script of and had a couple of thoughts. One was, I have to do this. The other was, I know just what I'm going to do with it. My guess would be that these thoughts struck her round about the point in the second act when her character, Teresa, gets a bottle of whisky in her hands. From that moment, as we see from her performance, Steadman grabs hold of Shelagh Stephenson's play with the same single-mindedness as her character grabs hold of the Johnnie Walker Black Label.

It's pure West End acting, because we know we're watching two things. There's Teresa, on bottom form, and unable to control herself, and there's Alison Steadman, on top form, and absolutely in charge. Once you've witnessed the hilarious sight of Steadman's Teresa, staggering round her late mother's bedroom, sloshing whisky into a tumbler and dishing out family truths, you realise that no party could ever be complete without her unnerving presence. They should book her into the Dome for New Year's Eve.

You don't often get the chance to see a full change of cast in a new play unless that play happens to be Closer or Art. Shelagh Stephenson's first play is the exception. It was premiered at Hampstead two years ago, when the three sisters were well-played by Haydn Gwynne, Jane Booker and Matilda Ziegler. The sisters are returning to a clifftop bungalow on the north-east coast of England the day before their mother's funeral. The resentments and antagonisms towards each other are counterpointed by their anger and disappointment over their relationship with their mum. None of them are like her (or are like each other) and yet none of them has escaped her influence. The first production of was only semi-successful. In that small theatre at Hampstead two plays, a funny one and a sad one, kept bumping up against each another and fighting for air.

Terry Johnson directed the Hampstead production and he now directs the West End one. He has clearly discovered something pretty major along the way. It's close to a scientific discovery, in fact. Terry Johnson's Law (as I understand it) is that you get a new cast to give the old characters an extra size, and when they turn up the performances and raise the temperature, a chemical reaction occurs. In the second production of Shelagh Stephenson's play the funny bits and the sad bits coexist quite happily.

Johnson is helped by his casting, which distinguishes more precisely between the humour and the hurt. You can divide the cast into two. Samantha Bond plays Mary, the doctor who's having a long affair with a man who won't leave his wife. This is a straight role and Bond, for all her snappy one-liners, plays it straight. Steadman's long-suffering husband who thinks the herbal remedies that he and his wife sell are rubbish, is played successfully by Mark Lambert as a comic role, while Samantha Bond's boyfriend, the quiet TV doctor who won't commit, is equally successfully played by Patrick Drury as a straight role. As the younger sister, Catherine, Julia Sawalha dives headlong into the comedy zone. She's the hypochondriac and shopaholic in the family ("broke doesn't mean you can't buy anything"), who crouches by the phone, willing her ex-boyfriend to ring. The vigorous bickering is always fresh, with Steadman, who has looked after their sick mother, telling the others: "If it was left up to you two, she would have to cremate herself."

An acute and funny writer, Stephenson carves out a welcome territory that is distinctive, contemporary and theatrical, viz the spectral appearances of the mother, Vi (Margot Leicester), in party frock. Stephenson brings a sharp humour to the sentimentality surrounding death. Does anyone, for instance, want to keep their mother's breast pump? Perhaps because it's her first play, Stephenson packs in a few too many one-liners which makes the dialogue at times a bit stilted. It's also runs a little long, so that the fizz that Steadman creates in the middle of the second act has gone by the end. But worth seeing for that fizz alone.

Not afraid of taking on a rich mix of cultural influences, the physical theatre company Told By An Idiot have devised a 70-minute homage to Federico Garca Lorca, Salvador Dal and Luis Bunuel. I wish I'd read the programme beforehand. A one sentence synopsis explains that Lorca is taken out and shot, and then remembers his first meeting with Dal and Bunuel at the Residenca in Madrid. That's why the tiny and talented Hayley Carmichael was kneeling in braces and bow-tie. And the platform with the tree growing through it was the Residenca.

The audience received I Weep At My Piano with enthusiasm. But I found it self-regarding, as if we were witnessing these three performers (Richard Clews and Stephen Harper are the other two) showing us one party trick after another. Yes, it's neat to use a tambourine as a virgin's halo, or to turn a bull's horns into a saw in order to amputate a leg. It's also clever to box with an imaginary partner. But this whimsical exercise in art about art left me with no appetite for either.

'': Vaudeville, WC2 (0171 836 9987), booking to 10 April. 'I Weep At My Piano': BAC, SW11 (0171 223 2223), to 30 January.

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