SHELAGH Stephenson, best known for her radio plays, wrote the semi-autobiographical The Memory of Water for the Hampstead Theatre in 1996, gathering together her own family history and the tried and tested “three sisters” structure.
Vi has died and her three daughters have gathered in the crumbling clifftop house where they grew up to sort the clothes and the rivalries.
All three have different and conflicting memories of their childhood, and all three have made different lives.
The eldest, Teresa, runs a health food store with her husband, following the pattern of her parents’ joint retail business. Mary, always the bright one, is a doctor with a married lover and a deep-hidden secret. Catherine, the youngest, is a mess of low self-esteem, high sex drive and dreadful taste in men.
Director Linda Cowley had some difficulties persuading Sturminster Newton Amateur Dramatic Society to take on this challenging and sometimes stridently modern play. Audiences just aren’t used to hearing the denizens of their community swearing so frequently on stage.
She not only convinced the committee but elicited some of the best performances ever from her cast. Bill Peat’s comic timing came to the fore as the henpecked Frank, husband of vegetarian Teresa, (Alison Mash), who has a cheap head and a deep-seated grudge as the daughter who stayed close to home – and was left with the demands of caring for their mother.
Robert Cowley managed to make the caricature erring-husband-promising-to-leave-his-wife into a rounded and believable person – even managing to earn our sympathy as he is dragged into the sibling conflicts around the coffin.
Vanessa Dawson evidently relished the role of the dead Vi, appearing only to her middle (and perhaps favourite) daughter, Mary, to chivvy out the buried horrors.
Jenny Young, returning to SNADS after a break, perfectly encapsulated the needy, self-obsessed Catherine, constantly waiting for a call from her Spanish boyfriend Javier. In some ways, Catherine is the most instantly recognisable character, 20 years on from the play’s premiere. She is the me-me-me baby sister, strugglilng to face up to the consequences of her drug habit and rootless life.
Tania White, a SNADS member for 25 years, best known for comedy, had the serious role of Mary, the neuro-surgeon daughter more concerned about her patients than the problems of her sisters and the need to understand her own relationship with her mother.
It is a difficult part – Tania says her role in Calendar Girls was easy by comparison! We have to believe in Mary’s professional skill and intellect, but we also need to see the insecurities that plague so many women: body image, guilt, the call to motherhood, relationship failures – warring with the demands and the satisfaction of her job.
Linda Cowley should be proud of her achievement in bringing this powerful and often very funny play to the Exchange stage, and congratulations to the cast who made us understand both the failings and the strengths of all the characters. We laughed, we recognised them, and depending on our own particular perspective, we cared about one or other of them.