Friday, 3 August 2012

Memory of Water, Canberra Rep

The "three sisters" play is a mini-genre unto itself. Offering the combination of sibling rivalry, generational drama, a couple of well-buried secrets and that all-too-rare opportunity of a range of good parts for actresses, a good example of the genre provides laughter, tears, and a vehicle for skilled performers to deliver both.

And fortunately, that's just what Shelangh Stephenson's comedy-drama "The Memory of Water" is - as three sisters gather for their mum's funeral, the bickering and secrets start bounding out soon enough, with the assistance of those-long-enjoyed dramatic devices, a joint and a bottle of whisky, to help everybody become a bit less uptight-English and a bit more "move-the-plot-along". I think it succeeds more as a vehicle for the actresses than it does necessarily as "great drama", whatever that is.

But fortunately, the three actresses playing those sisters are up with Canberra's best. Andrea Close as the eldest, Theresa, is a study of anal-obsessive-resentment, with not a hint of actorly ego as Theresa continues to be the butt of a lot of the jokes. Lainie Hart as the middle daughter, Mary, has all the brittle edge and intelligence, together with a great line in sardonic quips, as well as being truly heartbreaking when the facade finally falls. And Eliza Bell as Catherine provides a whirlwind of insane shambolic brilliance, her ditzy free-associating brain ("it's often shoes, except sometimes it's underwear") and perpetual energy making her simultaneously delightful and frustrating.

Sally Rynveldt in the small role of the departed Mum also fascinates - in her brief time on stage we get to find out a lot about a woman with her own wishes, desires and resentments, with a very definite opinion on the daughters she's left behind. The two men are slightly less well written, perhaps - David McNamara does well as the trying-to-be-supportive-but-not-quite-managing-it-completely Mike, while Rob DeFries' Frank occasionally goes a little too much for the laugh at the expense of both the character and a reliable single regional accent - he does slip around the counties a little.

Ed Wightman's direction is tight and focussed, bringing out the reality, humour and drama in the script. Quentin Mitchell's set helps keep the action contained on the large widths of the Theatre 3 stage. Lachlan Ruffy's lighting, Jonathan McFeat's music and Neil McRitchie's sound design all add beautifully to the mood and soul of the piece, including some quite gorgeous transitions into and out of scenes.

This isn't quite theatre that grabs me by the heart and the brain and makes me stare in astonishment (it's a play that works better as "great entertainment" than "serious art", which makes my overly-analytical critic nerves twitch a bit - it's when the play is reaching for "serious art" that it loses me a little, including some of the dialogue about memory that gives the play its title). But it's funny, modern-leaning (although modern-leaning in this case is still the late 90s ... it'll be delightful when Rep catches up with the millennium one of these days...) theatre with heart to it. And that's pretty damn good.

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