First Night: Sisters fizz with ancient conflict to the clanking of skeletons

`The Memory of Water' Vaudeville Theatre London
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The Independent Online
FUNERALS ARE handy functions for a dramatist, providing the perfect excuse for yanking back into tense proximity people who are 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 bundle of skeletons in Shelagh Stephenson's often wickedly funny and moving play, The Memory Of Water, in which three sisters return to their childhood home in Yorkshire for the interment of their mother. Tempers are not improved by the paralysingly snowy weather, nor, for one of them, by the recurrent appearance of the mother's ghost.

A riotously well observed look at the social strains of bereavement, the play is also a shrewd meditation on the subjective competitive and self-preserving nature of memory which so often distorts and tailors recollections to fit in with a personal sense of grievance. It was a big hit two years ago on its first airing in Hampstead. Someone has had the smart idea of reviving Terry Johnson's production with starrier principals: after a highly successful regional tour, it now 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 air of heartache to the role of Mary, the high-flying doctor and victim of her own success who harbours a boyfriend who will not leave his sick wife and a void left by the baby she was forced to give up at the age of 14.

Bond is perhaps a little generalised and over actressy - her pukka tones rarely relapsing, as they would, to 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 Alison Steadman in magnificent form as Teresa, a fusspot, frantic, health food freak who pops "completely organic" nerve pills and who, in one of the best displays of mountingly drunk acting I have ever seen, hilariously haemorrhages accusing home truths at her startled family.

Johnson's highly entertaining production keeps skilful control of the tone. But the production cannot disguise the fact that the dramatic current flows unevenly or that some of the themes sit a bit lumpily in the midst of the social interaction. But Stephenson has a sharp facility for comic quirkiness (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.

Paul Taylor

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