Though Vi is dead, she’s still a presence in Shelagh Stephenson’s 1996 play – and in the lives of her three daughters, who have all come home for her funeral.
Ambitious middle child Mary (Beth Cordingly) is now a doctor having an affair with a married man, while older sister Teresa (Juliet Cowan) stayed put to care for their mother as her memory started to fail. Impulsive and anchorless Catherine (Jasmine Jones), the youngest, hasn’t quite grown up yet. Numbing themselves with whisky and weed, they turn the process of sorting through their mother’s clothes into a sort of summoning. Secrets get dredged up, recriminations surface.
Stephenson’s play won the 2000 Olivier award for best comedy, but like Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night, another play about grief nominated in this category, the laughs mask a rawer exploration of loss. Some of Stephenson’s jokes, about Albanians and people with ME, have not aged well. They have a skin on them like old milk, but others still glint, like kitten’s claws.
They play is particularly good at describing the complexity of mother-daughter relationships and how you often don’t really see your parents as people, with their own set of regrets, until it’s too late. Cordingly does the bulk of the play’s emotional heavy-lifting, while Katy Stephens plays Vi as she once was in the eyes of her daughters: glamorous, resentful and complex. Vi’s bed sits fittingly at the heart of Laura Hopkins’ curtained set.
The comic moments in Adele Thomas’ production err towards the broad. The pacing could be tighter and the dialogue clearer, but she accurately captures the way that childhood memories can be slippery and how grief can knit people together even as it tears them apart.