Theatre review: Sydney & the Old Girl

Miriam Margolyes is on superb form in this potential modern classic


Actors love meaty roles and so it is easy to see what attracted Miriam Margolyes to Eugene O’Hare’s darkly comic play — a dissection of a mother/son relationship that has festering resentment where love might once have been.

Written ten years ago and receiving its first outing with a superb cast, it is set in the shabby East End home of wheel-chair-bound octogenarian Nell (Margolyes) where she lives with her middle-aged son Sydney (Mark Hadfield) and a TV that is on the blink.

It is a play that feels unconnected both in theme and content to anything of note that has opened recently in London — the kind of personal work that feels detached from the time and politics in which it was written. For example, Sydney’s misanthropic view of the city is fuelled by his oddly violent response to passing ambulance sirens and a visceral hatred of immigrants.

But it could be set almost at any time over the past 100 years. And anyway, his real vitriol is directed at his mother, and hers at him. Barely an exchange passes between these two that isn’t intended to wound.

Not to get carried away, thoughts turn to such writers as Pinter or Sam Shepard, but also to Only Fools and Horses, only without a scintilla of sentimentality.

For much of Philip Breen’s production, the play feels like a character study — the kind that exists as a vehicle for actors who want to show their wares. And for that reason alone it may have a future life and be revived long after this run. But that would sell short O’Hare’s writing, which has a keen eye for the comedy of dysfunctional relationships and also for the cruelty that exists only between people who are inseparably close.

There is plot, too. Nell’s Irish carer Marion (Vivien Parry) pops in regularly to clean and help Nell. She also becomes the way in which Sydney might be cut out of his mother’s will, which injects a good deal of dramatic tension to a play that could have easily coasted on its unflinching sharp dialogue and combined it with grim, social realism. But it’s too funny for that genre, and too dark to be called a comedy when the source of the mother and son’s mutual resentment is revealed.

Margolyes is on superb form. Confined to a wheelchair for most of the play, she emanates cruelty and mischief, and doles it out with masterful comic timing.

Meanwhile, Hadfield generates self-pity and a sinister potential for violence that is as Pinteresque as a pause. And, against this cruel background, Parry turns in a beautifully judged performance as the endlessly compassionate Marion.

Whether the play ends up as a minor classic, only time will tell. But right now the performances alone are worth the price of a ticket.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive