TIM WALKER reviews Sydney & the Old Girl at Park Theatre, London.
Miriam Margolyes has a splendidly comic face, a splendidly comic voice and a splendidly comic sense of timing. A more splendidly comic actress it’s hard to imagine.
I could happily watch Margolyes reciting the entire electoral roll without becoming even remotely bored. I don’t of course say Eugene O’Hare’s Sydney & the Old Girl falls into quite that category, but I have to admit it comes perilously close. The two-and-a-half hours it runs feels like an eternity.
Margoyles plays Nell, a cantankerous, wheelchair-bound widow, whose principal pleasure is tormenting her strange, misanthropic son Sydney (Mark Hadfield), who looks forward only to the day she pops her mouldy old bedroom slippers and he gets to inherit her dosh. He has a homely cardie and a comb-over, but he exudes menace.
Nell is, meanwhile, pure arsenic in old lace and is so politically incorrect – in common with so many members of her generation – that she is to all intents and purposes Alf Garnett in drag. Hadfield is on equally strong form as her son and it’s clear the playwright sees him as some kind of crude stereotype of a Brexiteer when he comes out with lines like “England is dead… well, my England, anyway, and f*** everyone living in it”.
Designers Max Jones and Ruth Hall have created a suitably grim and claustrophobic home for the pair to rattle around in, with an awful old moth-eaten floral carpet, a television on the blink and a genuine NHS walking stick for Nell. The director Philip Breen, meanwhile, does what he can to try to give some sense of movement to a play with a central character who is inevitably somewhat static.
The problem with a piece that is 90% moaning and 10% plot is as intrinsic as it’s obvious: after a while, one just yearns to make one’s excuses and leave. I have as a matter of fact seen some very good plays about miserable old gits – Alan Bennett has of course made a career out of them – but they always need to have something valuable to say for there to be any point to them, and I just can’t see what it is that O’Hare is adding to the sum of human knowledge, beyond that life can sometimes be pretty grim.
Maybe I’m being tougher on this play than I ought to be, but I look to theatre these days more than ever to inspire, enlighten or cheer and this piece fails abysmally on all counts. Still, I should add that Vivien Parry is also very good in the role of Marion, Nell’s Irish carer, but I should declare an interest so far as this actress is concerned. A few years ago, believe it or not, I acted alongside Vivien in the West End musical Top Hat. She’s a consummate pro with infinite patience when it comes to working with amateurs.