IN BRIEF Well-played toxic comedy three-hander leaves a bitter aftertaste
A wheelchair-bound mother in her tatty house watches her twitchy, jowly blancmange of a son trying to mend her ancient telly. The atmosphere of mutual loathing is palpable. And yet it is also funny, as played by the inimitable Miriam Margolyes and Mark Hadfield, and written by Eugene O’ Hare.
Here are two desperately lonely people who have fallen through the social fabric, forced together by circumstance, hating yet needing each other. As their bitchy ping-pong continues, we slowly fill in the causes of this dysfunctional relationship. There is much pain in their mutual histories, touched on but not dwelt. Disability, abuse, death, ignorance, fear, guilt and shame have all played their part in sculpting their current grim coexistence
As the novelty of the bitch-fest starts to produce diminishing returns, the plot thankfully kicks in, which concerns Mum Nell’s inheritance and what becomes of it. Conspiring with care nurse Marion, Nell cruelly snubs her son Sydney to leave all her worldly goods to charity. Or so she thinks…
When the dynamics of the trio changes, Nell and Sydney find that they have something in common to hate that surprisingly leads to an outbreak of civility. But unexpected events scupper this, making it a short-lived truce.
Margolyes is always a delight to watch at work; here, as Nell, her beady eyes dark with a thirst for any tiny victory in these microscopic power-games, she’s about as cuddly as a rattlesnake. Her scenes with Marion are sly and gently manipulative, and Margolyes brings all her considerable talents to this mind-gaming old woman.
Mark Hadfield is an ideal foil to Margolyes- highly watchable as damaged son Sydney, from his edginess to his drinking to his overwhelming sadness. His disabling uneasiness with people is hilariously illustrated in a deeply uncomfortable “chat” sequence with Marion where he unsuccessfully attempts to mask his fear, loneliness and ingrained racism.
Vivien Parry as Irish carer Marion is all religion, care and concern, a Mother to the Mother and whose good-hearted nature is ripe for exploitation; who is used so badly and makes us feel for her in a detailed performance.
All three make a terrific ensemble, with long passages of monologue and dialogue expertly navigated by each.
Eugene O’ Hare’s jagged, tricky dialogue is a minefield of timing, with misunderstandings (deliberate or otherwise) and tiny trips in communication peppering the text, well executed under Philip Breen’s direction.
I was reminded several times of the Galton and Simpson classic TV show Steptoe and Son which had a similar dynamic between father and son; however this play is much darker, which in many ways works against its appeal, for O’Hare’s characters are hard to care about in any sense. Nevertheless, for me, the three performances make it worth seeing.
SYDNEY AND THE OLD GIRL plays at Park Theatre until November 30th. Details and tickets here