Miriam Margolyes is no stranger to the Park Theatre. The actress, who has an impressive cv of roles under her belt including Professor Sprout in Harry Potter, starred in the 2017 production of Madame Rubinstein and now returns in Eugene O’Hare’s Sydney & the Old Girl.
Written by Eugene O’Hare, whose debut full-length play The Weatherman treaded the Park’s boards earlier this year, Sydney & the Old Girl focuses on elderly Nell Stock (Margolyes) and her son Sydney (Mark Hadfield), who has been forced to move back into the family home in the East End of London. After the death of Nell’s husband and other son Bernie, the pair only have one another, but there’s certainly no love lost between them. They spend their time squabbling; wheelchair-bound Nell constantly taunts her son; while Sydney blames his mother for his brother’s death and looks forward to the day she’s dead herself. Nell’s only solace is her home help, Irish, charity-giving nurse Marion Fee (Vivien Parry), but soon Marion finds herself an unwitting participant in the Stock’s game.
Directed by Phillip Breen, the play takes place in the Stock’s house; co-designers Max Jones and Ruth Hall’s set a throwback to the 80s, complete with garish wallpaper, a carpet that’s seen better days and a retro sideboard complete with a drinks cabinet. From the moment this dark comedy starts Nell and Sydney are at each other’s throats, flinging insults at one another left, right and centre (‘deaf old bint’, ‘old scut’ to name just a few). This is not a ‘nice’ play and there are many uncomfortable and not politically correct put-downs fired back and forth. But these insults are often amusing (Nell believes she’s worthy of a place in the Guinness Book of Records for experiencing ‘the longest case of post-natal depression known to man’ ), at least at first, and delivered brilliantly by Margolyes and Hadfield. But their conversation is not merely banter, and there are moments where the true nature of their relationship is revealed, and Sydney’s abusive nature comes to light. It’s these scenes which provide some welcome tension to the piece, even if they are difficult to watch – a moment where Sydney throws and alcoholic drink at his mother and then holds a lighter to her face is particularly horrific but nonetheless one of the most powerful scenes in the production.
On paper Sydney & the Old Girl has the potential to be a powerful play but in reality it falls flat, especially when essentially nothing much happens. Sydney and Nell are both nasty bullies and it’s incredibly hard to invest in these characters when they’re so awful. Though the second act is stronger with some exploration of the grief the pair have experienced, the story is never fully developed and tends to rely on the bickering between mother and son, but after a while the insults become too repetitive and they lost their effect.
Thankfully the acting prevents this play from being a complete disaster, and all three actors put in worthy performances. Miriam Margolyes once again proves why she’s one of our finest actresses, and despite spending most of the play confined to a wheelchair, she delivers a memorable performance. She’s a far cry from Professor Sprout as she delivers her putdowns with style, each insult laced with poison, while her facial expressions are a treat. Her cheekiness comes out to play when Nell is going behind Sydney’s back, sneaking some alcohol she’s squirreled away, and she has some brilliant one-liners (“You could travel,” Marion suggests to Nell at one point, to which she replies, deadpan: “I hate countries love.”)
Mark Hadfield is a worthy opponent to Margolyes. He has his work cut out with playing such an odd character, but he does a convincing job. Though both mother and son are horrid, Sydney is particularly cruel; he’s bullying and manipulative, even refusing to tell his mother what day it is or what’s in her white soup (which looks suspiciously like paste). And if that wasn’t enough, he’s racist and homophobic too. Thankfully Vivien Parry is there to inject some light into this production, charming the audience and both mother and son as the Irish home help becomes a confidante to the pair.
Sydney & the Old Girl features commendable performances and there is a good dose of humour, however ultimately this sinister play which intends to shock simply leaves you feeling deflated.
Sydney & the Old Girl plays at the Park Theatre until Saturday 30 November.
Photo credit: Pete Le May