Friday, August 17, 2012

Canberra Rep: The Memory of Water

I feel a little guilty to be reviewing this when there are only three performances left, but I didn't get to see it until well into the run, and things have been really busy, and, and, and ...

Guilt and self-justification are not the only emotions explored in Shelagh Stephenson's play, but they're up there. The death of their mother brings three sisters and a couple of their partners (I'm resisting the temptation to embrace that word with quotation marks) together for the funeral, and, de rigeur, old tensions and rivalries come roaring to the foreground.

This is a good play, well-directed and very funny in places.  The set is good, with some lovely attention to detail; the lighting functional and appropriate (is our Mr Ruffy tilting at a Gold CAT?), and the props an absolute triumph - it's not often that props get a shout-out, but here it's well-deserved.

The play, set by a wintry coast somewhere in the North of England, is also well-performed - with the sole but glaring exception of terrible, terrible accents.  I exempt from this criticism Sally Rynevelt, bless her slingbacks, who is really wonderful as the late mother - or is she merely the memory of the late mother? Her accent is flawless; she inhabits the role completely, and I had to check afterward that it wasn't, in fact, her natural speaking voice.  I've only seen her perform previously in recordings, and we can all be glad that she'd decided to return to the stages of Canberra. 

Andrea Close (the eldest sister Theresa), who is also a wonderful actress, seemed really to struggle with the accent, though it was easily the next best effort in the cast. I remember how stunning she was as Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" a few years back and I know she can hold an accent, but this one just never completely took.  She's at least as good a drunk here as she was in VW, though, and is always a joy to watch, even when magically somehow transforming her slender and elegant self into the lumpen exhausted Theresa by dint of a cardi, utility apron and a change of stance.

Lainie Hart (middle sister Mary) didn't even bother with an accent, resorting to her standard pseudo-Hepburn drawl (Audrey, that is). For me, it's actually starting to mask her talent as an actress, which people keep telling me is considerable.  I remember agreeing the first few times I saw her.  But now I've seen her play everything from a fallen angel to an anxious Anglo-Indian bride and she always sounds exactly the same. There's a lot to admire about her acting, but I'm starting not to be able to hear it.

In one of the most extraordinary casting coups ever, though, she plays a doctor with a speciality in cognitive impairment - particularly amnesia and memory issues - which as I understand it almost exactly Lainie's day job (she holds a PhD is Clinical Neuropsychology).  Is it just me or can we agree that is completely remarkable?

Eliza Bell (Catherine, the attractive, self-obsessed youngest) is another actress I love, and I'm so pleased to be seeing so much more of her lately (a sentiment doubtless echoed by quite a few gentlemen in the audience as she stripped down to bra and knickers - albeit briefly, and all in the best possible taste). This is her third performance for Rep this year and she is always a standout, with a CV that makes me wonder what she's doing in Canberra, until I remember that I'm here too. But she makes no attempt at an accent either, apart from a sort of generalised English one.

I can configure all sorts of interesting backstories to explain why these sisters and their mother all sound nothing alike, but that's not my job, frankly, and it was annoying and distracting.  David MacNamara. as Mary's married inamorato, doesn't need to share the accent, and was fine, though I'm starting to wonder if he's just typecast as a stilted Englishman or actually is a stilted Englishman (for the ladies, there's a fair bit of D'arcy-esque shirtlessness to restore the gender equity).  Rob de Fries, someone else I usually enjoy watching, would have utterly confounded 'Enry 'Iggins, and several times slipped into tones reminiscent of a mobster from the Bronx.

Better not to do accents at all than to do them badly and inconsistently, I say - because here I am spending paragraphs and paragraphs complaining about it when overall I thoroughly enjoyed this play.

The title, while not particularly commercial, is clever. The memory of water is a reference to the claims of homeopaths that even if water is refined and refined and diluted and diluted until not a trace of an additive remains, it will nevertheless retain a "memory" of that additive.  As someone who likes my medicine evidence-based, homeopathy as a metaphor for the unreliability of memory is appealing, as is the less subtle dig consisting of Theresa rushing about crazily while sucking down Rescue Remedy (I was about to say "as if it were water" - which, of course, it is).

And so all three sisters have completely different recollections of their shared childhood - as, indeed, has their mother Vi - and some of those memories are demonstrably false, and others are shown to be have been constructed, and at the end, as in life, we get to make our own decisions about where the truth lies (or what lies contain truth).  Hardworking, put-upon, reliable Theresa, who has spent her life looking after everybody else, finally cracks. Clever favourite Mary has to face some awful revelations, some hitherto unknown and some just hitherto un-faced.  Scatty, pretty, empty Catherine treads endless water, still a child in her 30's.

Stephenson gives David MacNamara's Mike an excellent, insightful line when her sisters react with derision to self-centred Catherine's claim that her problem is that she "gives too much" - "She does give too much, it's just that what she gives is usually inappropriate".  Yes. Yes, it is.  And don't we all know someone like that.

Despite some of the subject matter, this is a very funny play, and Ed Wightman's direction is seamless and intelligent, getting every shred of nuance out of Stephenson's well-crafted script.  And even if you fixate on accents to the same degree as me - and I doubt many people do - this is a very enjoyable and well-put together production which is worth your time.

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