This new play by Eugene O’Hare proves to be an ink-black comedy with a firm grasp of inter-generational voices and an undercurrent of menace. Sydney and the Old Girl refers to a son and a mother. We first meet them in the living room where she, wheelchair-bound, and he, tetchy and trying to mend an ancient television, spit constant insults at each other.

Nell, a widow who isn’t quite as helpless as she first appears, has never loved Sydney, who “makes her skin crawl”. He, in turn, is abusive and seems disturbed, flying into a rage at the sound of emergency vehicle sirens, simmering with resentment at his mother. It’s an intriguing set-up.

Slowly, O’Hare crafts a piece which moves through snappy, vicious, and often comic dialogue to open up a picture of this family. There’s another son who died young – a lengthy exchange in act two explains more about Bertie’s loss and how his brother Sydney dealt with it. The only other character we see is an Irish home-help, Mrs Fee, who helps a charity for orphans from her country, and seems on good terms with Nell.

Miriam Margoyles and Mark Hadfield in Sydney and the Old Girl
Miriam Margoyles and Mark Hadfield in Sydney and the Old Girl

The set by Ruth Hall and Max Jones feels stuck in a timewarp, with wood panelling and furniture (sideboard, drinks cabinet), and a flowered carpet with clashing paisley chair. Sydney wears a paisley tie at one point, we guess his father’s, and claims to have always liked the pattern. It is the kind of room an old woman would inhabit, do her rollers, “dry her smalls”, and have an occasional nip of whisky. An East London space that hasn’t moved on since Sydney was a child.

Miriam Margoyles effortlessly inhabits the character of the monstrous Nell which was written with her in mind. This woman hides moments of fear and vulnerability behind insults. She even pushes away her one ally to save her relationship with her son, however empty and destructive that might be.

As Sydney, slightly effeminate, definitely creepy – twice he greedily sniffs at Mrs Fee’s coat collar as it lays across the chair – Mark Hadfield is convincing. His days are filled with ways to torment his mother and he struggles with years of hurt and neglect. His only constant is a large red bag which stands out in the room like a sinister beacon, drawing our eyes to it.

Miriam Margoyles and Vivien Parry in Sydney and the Old Girl
Miriam Margoyles and Vivien Parry in Sydney and the Old Girl

Mrs Fee is a secondary character, but a pivotal one, and Vivien Parry catches her sunny kindness and troubled reticence. However she is not as well developed as mother and son, and we don’t quite know what her motivation is. Until it was clear she had a husband I thought she might be a woman of God; certainly she contrasts with the earthy Nell who boasts she “was known in the Docklands … I weren’t shy neither”.

Sydney and the Old Girl is billed as a comedy, but it is a deeply disturbing one, and the laughter which greets some of the lines feels almost wrong as the play progresses to a catastrophic confusion (but not one you might expect, and in fact I misinterpreted it until I read the play text ending on the way home).

With tight direction by Phillip Breen, with minimal scene changes and sound design by Dyfan Jones, evoking the sounds outside in the London streets, we are pulled straight into this claustrophobic space where memories are in every inch as nothing has changed. Sydney, back in the house where he was born, is still a child wanting his mother to notice him, and that’s a tragedy.

Miriam Margoyles in Sydney and the Old Girl
Miriam Margoyles in Sydney and the Old Girl

A deeply intelligent play, Sydney and the Old Girl runs at the Park Theatre until 30 November. There are standing tickets still available and an in-person waiting list on the day – check https://www.parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/sydney-the-old-girl for details.

Photo credits Pete Le May.

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