The return of live theatre has been, for many, something of a long wished for cause for celebration. While outdoor venues have been better equipped for the demands of social distancing and COVID associated health and safety, many of our indoor venues have remained dark. The brief flickerings of hope in the winter of 2020 proved to be a false start, but as spring begins to give way to summer in 2021, it seems that finally we theatre fans can return to our beloved performance spaces. Stepping into the Mission Theatre was my first return to indoor theatre, and as I sat in my socially distanced seat, casting my eye over my fellow masked audience members, I was touched not only by how fortunate we were to finally be in a theatre, but also the love and excitement that was emanating from this sold out audience. We were all happy to be there, but it was clear that our own jubilation was felt even more keenly by the cast and crew of Next Stage Theatre Company.
This revival of Shelagh Stephenson’s award winning comedy, The Memory of Water, is a production that has been over a year in the making. It was, like many pre-pandemic shows, a victim of lockdown closures – not once, but twice. Yet, as the saying goes, the third time was indeed the charm, and as the house lights went down over the audience, the eagerness to sample the fruits of this Bath theatre company’s labour was palpable.
Directed by Ann Ellison and performed in the round, The Memory of Water follows sisters Teresa, Mary and Catherine – played by Liz Wilson, Hayley Fitton-Cook and Georgi Bassil respectively – as they process the loss of their mother, Vi (played in ghostly form by Jane Lawson), on the eve of her funeral. What follows is a tangly drama tinged with comedy as the sisters discover the fluid, non-linear nature of memory and identity, and stumble upon some bombshell revelations that threaten to plunge the upcoming funeral into disarray.
With its pressure cooker plot line and strongly realised characters, this is a piece that demands a skilled cast to keep the narrative ticking at a pace, and Next Stage do not disappoint. Liz Wilson’s turn as the put upon and neurotic eldest sister, Teresa, brings a simmering rage that keeps the fires of the plot alive, and Teresa’s increasing inebriation is played with an assured comedic performance from Wilson. The brittle ego of Georgi Bassil’s self-centred Catherine is played to perfection, with Bassil’s levity of speech through Catherine’s ramblings at once showcasing her trappings as a fantasist and the underpinning tragedy of her neediness. The rapport between all of the cast is tangible in this show, with Mary and her married lover, Mike’s (Richard Matthews) crumbling relationship played to a painfully real anticlimax of an ending; sometimes the most devastating romantic conclusions are the quiet ones filled with cold apathy.
While the women of the piece very much take centre stage, Matthews’ performance as Mike along with Robert Edwards as the overworked Frank are never eclipsed by the glimmering rays of their partner and spouse. Matthews brings a swagger to the charming yet slightly greasy Mike, and he truly shines in his scenes with Hayley Fitton-Cook’s Mary. Meanwhile Frank is given a quiet strength by Edwards, who turns a character who could easily fall into the hen-pecked husband cliche into a man with heart and reserved drive.
The text does feel of its time, possessing many of the trappings of ensemble cast British comedies of the late 90s/early 00s, but its use of metaphor and imagery concerning memory and its intangibility remain as fresh as ever. The often tricky staging of in the round is perfectly balanced and beautifully executed by the cast, while the subtle lighting changes between dream and reality clearly moves the audience between these two realms of consciousness with ease.
As re-introductions into theatreland go, Next Stage Theatre Company’s production of The Memory of Water is a real treat. Superbly performed by its cast and confidently staged, this is a high quality production that will leave you feeling excited for the long awaited return of live performance.
The Memory of Water is performing at the Mission Theatre, Bath as part of the Bath Fringe Festival from May 25th until May 27th and June 7th until June 9th, 2021.