Photos: Pete Le May
Miriam Margolyes, Mark Hadfield and Vivien Parry make for a great line up, but theatrical credentials mean nothing without a decent script and some good directing. The Park Theatre production of Sydney and the Old Girl by Eugene O’Hare has all of this in spades and then some.
This beautifully crafted piece opens in the home of Nell Stock. The audience takes in the room as they wait for the performance to begin. Large flowers pattern the carpet, a dining table with a folding leaf, one battered recliner armchair, a tiled coffee table with a dismantled TV, a side board with ornaments and bric a brac, a dresser with papers and bottles, all the paraphernalia of everyday life. At the back a kitchen: a kettle, a microwave, debris. We are being given an insight into the world of the person we are about to meet through Max Jones and Ruth Hall’s realistic set.
Lights up and Nell sits in her wheelchair. A larger than life character who manipulates and abuses those around her with no apparent qualms. Her son, Sydney, is attempting to mend the broken TV. Three or four exchanges later and you feel like you have stepped into an episode of Steptoe and Son. Sydney is Harold, Nell is Albert with the constant back and forth of needling exchanges that border on the vitriolic. There is an underlying menace in the way that Sydney looks at Nell and Margolyes and Hadfield create a feeling of tension that is palpable. The laughs come thick and fast, but there is a level of discomfort and insecurity as the audience is never quite sure what is going to happen next. It moves away from the safety of a much loved 1960s sitcom as Sydney starts to shout at passing emergency service vehicles that sound their sirens outside his window, as he slips in and out of the house carrying the mysterious red bag, leaving the audience unsure of where his unpredictable nature will lead.
The writing is superb, a gradual picture of these two dysfunctional family members is presented as they throw accusations and abuse at each other, and share moments from their past history with Marion Fee, Nell’s carer. Miriam Margolyes performance initially persuades us that she is a vulnerable, exploited woman until we see her conniving attempts to disinherit her son. Mark Hadfield, appears to border on the psychotic, his control over his mother’s eating reminds us of Bette Davis serving up dead canaries to Joan Crawford. The audience waits with eager anticipation to see the ‘white soup’. There are stage pictures that you take away with you – Sydney with his trousers rolled up with his knees covered in Sudocream, Nell drying her knickers with a hairdryer, Marion entering with a blue plastic bag of coriander.
Vivien Parry plays Marion Fee, the third character in this three-hander. She is caught between the bickering family members and is in a no win situation. By trying to please both she satisfies neither and just like Aston in Pinter’s Caretaker the two family members are finally united against the outsider. Parry’ sensitive portrayal is shown through gentle touches, moments of stillness and a haunted look of someone who is not sure what to do for the best.
The final moments leave Margolyes centre stage in a blur of surreal memories. The play moves away from the realism we have been living through to a non-naturalistic look into the tortured mind of a woman who is a product of her time; who comes from a world where children born with disabilities were hidden away and parents felt uncomfortable showing emotion in their relationships with their children. The images flash across the stage of Sydney’s brother Bernie jumping through leaves and standing on his head, reminders of things we have seen and heard in the process of the play, drawing together loose threads in a final poignant moment.
The underscoring of sound effects such as rain, sirens and general noise works well, however I am not so convinced by the funeral march at the beginning of Act Two, which seems unnecessarily cliched. In fact music at this point seems unnecessary, although the piece ‘Monday Afternoon’, written by O’Hare, which appears in the stage directions and is printed in the back of the text with its melancholic undertones, would have perhaps been a little less hackneyed.
I also take issue with some of the staging. The Park Theatre has a thrust stage and sitting to one side as I was there are far too many static scenes where Margolyes wheelchair is facing away from me. As a wheelchair user she is unable to turn in the way someone else might and often Hadfield is moving towards her, close up, to create a feeling of intimidation. Unfortunately this means that the audience is unable to see the all important facial expressions. So much of what make these performances great is the shift in understanding that comes from eye movements, a twitch of an eyebrow, a twist of the lip. It is this that helps us see the dynamics between the mother and son and it is disappointing to not be able to follow this through the whole play.
This aside the play is an exceptional piece of theatre and well worth a visit to Finsbury Park – if you can get a ticket!