Sydney & the Old Girl – Park Theatre, London

Writer: Eugene O’Hare

Director: Phillip Breen

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

With family dramas there’s always a skeleton in the cupboard waiting to be released in a big reveal at the end of the play to explain the permanent underlying tension. Eugene O’Hare’s new play Sydney & the Old Girl, making its debut at the Park Theatre is an accomplished psychological study of the consequences of years of harboured resentment as mother and son air their skeleton repeatedly, and bitterly contend over who is to blame.

Forced to move home temporarily claiming his flat is being refurbished, middle-aged Sydney lives in fractious discontent with his wheelchair-bound mother Nell. Their vicious bickering leads to one too many confrontations and Nell enlists the help of nurse Marion Fee to protect her wealth from her grasping son. But who is really being duped?

O’Hare’s play opens with some of the most biting dialogue you can hear between parent and child, instantly plunging the audience into the world of the Stock family who trade insults with ease, loathing every moment of each other’s presence. What becomes so interesting about O’Hare’s writing is never being entirely sure what the nature of their relationship really is. There are moments of almost companionable enjoyment as they discuss the crossword – is this an elaborate Albee game or really something much more sinister?

O’Hare’s dialogue cracks and fizzes with energy, brilliantly capturing the rhythm of an older pattern of Working-Class London speech. The actors virtually spit venom at each other as their arguments bounce back and forth while reflecting their respective ages and bringing a credibility to the interactions. This is balanced by an extreme menace that builds throughout the play, something which director Phillip Breen develops extremely well as the already sour atmosphere grippingly tips over into something far more alarming.

Miriam Margolyes is dazzlingly good as Nell, fully inhabiting the mischievous and darker aspects of the character while visibly changing her tone and manner with nurse Fee to elicit sympathy and friendship. The joy of this mercurial performance lies in its ambiguity, never being sure whether she is the cruel and thoughtless mother Sydney believes or a woman damaged by guilt and grief for a lost child.

The titular Sydney, played by Mark Hadfield, presents a real unnerving danger, a man with violent impulses expressed through coarse and crude speech initially – almost Pinteresque in its construction – but with the possibility of physical expression lurking beneath the surface. His clear feelings of disassociation from his mother suggest a long-held resentment in Hadfield’s performance that keeps the audience on edge, never quite sure what he might do.

The slightly melodramatic and rushed conclusion feels like an easy way out of a tough bind for O’Hare in trying to give the characters an ending they both deserve but it needs more build-up to truly satisfy. Dispensing with the interval could also add an even greater pressure to the unfolding narrative – if there’s no escape for the characters then why should the audience have a break. Minor quibbles aside, with a dangerously good mother-son partnership and excellent central performances Sydney & the Old Girl is an intense alternative to the formulaic family drama.

Runs Until: 30 November 2019 | Image: Pete Le May

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