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Theatre Review Best of intentions pave way to indifference

MARY CONWAY is disappointed to see a once award-winning comedy lose its spark entirely

The Memory of Water
Hampstead Theatre
★★

SHELAGH STEPHENSON’S The Memory of Water at Hampstead Theatre is a prime example of how time changes everything.

In the year 2000, this play won an Olivier Award for best new comedy and was subsequently adapted for a film (Before You Go) starring Julie Walters. Now it seems less notable for its crowd-pleasing content than for a creaky storyline, laboured attempts at comedy and a range of under-developed and almost indistinguishable characters.

Not that I blame artistic director, Roxana Silbert, for selecting it. It must have seemed like a safe revival at a time when current themes are so dispiriting. But the result, despite huge commitment from director Alice Hamilton, cast and crew, is a listless affair, addressing too many inconclusive themes while seeming to grab at arbitrary cultural references that never take us to moments of genuine insight.

The popularity of the play’s original production, also at Hampstead in 1996, was in response to its focus on women. It seemed almost to occupy the gap left by writers such as Pam Gems whose play Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi had lit up the same stage 20 years earlier with a wonderful compassionate study of girls versus the contemporary world. Now we need more than just seeing women at the centre of the action; now we need to feel the truth of their lives.

Not that the cast don’t pull their weight — they give it everything, signalling laugh lines to us with consummate skill and delivering their moments of self-revelation as star turns. But somehow, I feel the actors, themselves, don’t believe in the characters any more than I do, and their relationships simply didn’t stack up.

The story, which tells of three sisters congregating at the family home on the death of their mother, inexplicably takes place solely in the mother’s bedroom. (Anna Reid’s set is impressive and takes on a life of its own with multimirrored wardrobes, snow scenes glimpsed through shiny windows and lowering clouds.) But when the coffin ends up there too it’s just depressing, crying out for a Joe Orton to lift the mood.

Some revivals confirm a play’s iconic status and parade its universal themes. This one, sadly, shows what’s lacking, and while ostensibly exploring the vagaries of memory, has little of note to say.  

There is a good play to be written here. But this isn’t it.
 

Ends October 16. Box office: 020 7722-9301.

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