Forget any notions of political correctness, civility or polite drawing room conversation. Eugene O’Hare’s Sydney and the Old Girl at the Park Theatre is coarse, offensive and very dark. It’s also brilliantly performed and very funny, if perhaps a little overdone in places.
Coarse, offensive and very dark... brilliantly performed and very funny.
Director Philip Breen has assembled a highly talented team to create this intense drama of family loathing. The set of shabby, dated furniture, a faded floral carpet, a broken television and a door with marks of previous locks and handles bespeaks an East London terrace that has seen its fair share of history and comes courtesy of designers Max Jones and Ruth Hall.
Nell Stock (Miriam Margolyes), now in her late seventies and contemplating her ultimate demise, has spent most of her life in the house. Her bachelor son, Sydney (Mark Hadfield), in his early fifties, allegedly rents a place of his own but is never there. In a perverse way, along with the physical and verbal abuse he heaps on her, he provides some sort of assistance to his chair-bound mother. It’s fortunate, though, that she also has Marion Fee (Vivien Parry), a carer who visits at various times to make sure all is well, which it never really is.
Margolyes, at seventy eight, has no difficulty in looking as Nell should appear, but her outstanding abilities as an actress enable her to give full vent to the most unpleasant aspects of a woman so far removed from herself. She clearly relishes every moment of playing a cantankerous, argumentative, vituperative, demeaning and, in her son’s charming phrase, ‘deaf old snatch’. Nell, however, is an old lady and a mother, despite all her failings, and Margolyes evokes the sympathy any woman in her position deserves. Hadfield, meanwhile, exudes the desperation of a son still tied to his mother, who is resentful of his loneliness but can do nothing about it and whose only way of relieving his frustration is by being excessively nasty and by popping down the pub every night. They share a common background and have become very much alike. Neither has found closure to the events surrounding the death of Nell’s other son, Sydney’s younger brother and her favourite. Guilt, the failure to have effectively grieved and the need for forgiveness, along with the associated secrets, lies and deceits, leave them carrying huge burdens. Instead of finding the grace to value what they have, they wallow in a world of claustrophobic oppression, recriminations and ingratitude.
Trying to bring some relief to the situation, Marion is a delightful breath of fresh air at first. Fee’s bright, cheerful Irish accent contrasts beautifully with the gnarled tones of the others. She portrays a woman of great sincerity and wit, devoted to her charity work and sustained by her faith, who nevertheless finds a path to hell with her good intentions. Fee movingly displays the distress of a woman out of her depth.
O’Hare and Breen have known each other for some time and this play has been going between them for nearly ten years, waiting for the moment they could bring it to the stage. Margolyes saw it around the same time and has wanted to play the part ever since. The intimacy of the Park Theatre, that previously hosted O’Hare’s The Weatherman, makes an ideal setting. It was worth the wait.