Theatre review: The Memory of Water, Ensemble Theatre

This award-winning play about three sisters is a bittersweet comedy.
The Memory of Water. Image is of one women in a pink hued bed, another sitting on it with her leg dangling over the side and a third standing by the side of the bed holding her head.

The Memory of Water, the debut play by Shelagh Stephenson, picked up the esteemed Olivier Award for Best Comedy in 2000. Despite such an achievement, this critic knew nothing of the play (other than its pretentious and vague title) going into the opening night of Ensemble Theatre’s production in Kirribilli. And what an odd title it is, considering it does little to signify the relatable, truthful and emotional quality that resides at the heart of the play. 

The play follows three sisters planning a party, albeit perhaps the worst party of all time – their mother’s funeral. The three women are all eccentric and delightfully offbeat. There’s Mary, the general practitioner who moonlights as a high-functioning alcoholic. Teresa is a business owner struggling to sell organic supplements. And Catherine, portrayed by the excellent and indefatigable Madeleine Jones, is an intense mix of shopping addict, stoner and hypochondriac.

Despite the specificity of these roles, there is something truly remarkable in how Stephenson has managed to write characters that you feel you have met before. Here, brushstrokes large and small can co-exist.

The script delivers in what may be considered a dated form of writing, where the first act presents the audience with humorous situations and characters, only for the second act to reveal a concentrated reality check, or an emotional gut punch. It’s a structuring conceit that was popular for quite some time in the late 20th century, but has since fallen out of favour. Despite this, there is a reason why it was so popular, the emotional second act is earned. Where certain character details are briefly mentioned in the first act as a sitcom-style gag, they seemingly act as a Trojan horse for some serious emotional firepower later on.

The handsome set by Veronique Benett is lovingly detailed with pink hues across the carpet, bedspread and walls, the latter featuring a realistic looking crack – a clever visual metaphor for the fractured family unit. Original music by David Bergman is used sparingly, usually to heighten moments at the beginning and end of scenes. The compositions are effective and clearly outline the tone conveyed by the piece.

Read: Music review: Cécile McLorin Salvant, QPAC

Although they aren’t reinventing any wheels, director Rachel Chant and her team have constructed an effective and emotional piece of theatre that leaves you satisfied. The cast all deliver engaging performances supported by a clever crew of backstage technicians. The Memory of Water is certainly one you won’t want to forget.

The Memory of Water by Shelagh Stephenson
Ensemble Theatre
Director: Rachel Chant
Set and Costume Designer: Veronique Benett
Lighting Designer: Kelsey Lee
Composer and Sound Designer: David Bergman
Dialect Coach: Linda Nicholls-Gidley
Intimacy, Movement and Fight Director: Nigel Poulton
Stage Manager: Lauren Tulloh
Assistant Stage Manager: Alexis Worthing
Costume Supervisor: Renata Beslik

Wig stylist: Lauren Proietti
Costume Maker: Margaret Gill
Cast: Michala Banas, Thomas Campbell, Nicole Da Silva, Jo Downing, Madeleine Jones, Johnny Nasser

The Memory of Water will be performed until 25 November 2023.

Matthew Collins is a writer, director, and occasional actor whose works extends through literature, theatre, film, politics, gallery work, and critical writings. He is currently studying a Master of Curating and Cultural Leadership at UNSW. You can find him on Instagram @thematthewcollins