Park Theatre – until 30 November 2019
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Eugene O’Hare’s pitch-black comedy makes you laugh and squirm with discomfort in equal measure. Sydney & the Old Girl is reminiscent of the bitter co-dependent relationship of Steptoe and Son, with a barnstorming performance from Miriam Margolyes as the malevolent Nell Stock, under the assured direction of Phillip Breen.
Nell lives with her son, Sydney in her home where every appliance seems to be at breaking point. They spend their time together trading vile barbs and insults as he takes care of her needs – on the porcelain like clockwork every day at six. Sydney, brimming with paranoia, racism and homophobia, never leaves the house without his big red bag, and reacts frantically whenever he hears emergency vehicle sirens. He delights in hurling sexual insults at his mother, while she goads and goads him to the point that he comes close to physically assaulting her, always stopping short, but making the threat linger as long as possible. Even though Sydney attacks her, Nell can’t seem to stop herself insulting Sydney, with the pair unable to communicate in any other way.
The root of their antipathy is hinted at, but when Sydney reveals the truth, as he remembers it, about his little brother’s death the pain and scars that fuel their destructive relationship become clearer. Nell’s spiteful glee in finding a way to deny Sydney his inheritance by duping her care worker Irene into organising the most uncharitable charitable donation possible pushes Sydney to the edge.
Margolyes gives a remarkably physical performance considering that she spends most of the play in a wheelchair. Every malignant thought is visible on her face, and she spits out O’Hare’s lines with relish, making her fake meekness and sweetness to Marion even more comical. Mark Hadfield gives Sydney a nervy dynamism, only still when he is furious or threatening his mother, and they handle the verbal sparring brilliantly. Vivien Parry as Marion Fee is an oasis of calm and comparative normality.
Max Jones and Ruth Hall’s meticulous set is marvellously dingy from the grubby floral carpet to the 1980s wallpaper, becoming increasingly oppressive as hostilities mount. O’Hare’s characters are deeply unpleasant, offensive and extremely unlikeable, even when you are given a glimpse of their past, but they are hilarious in their efforts to hurt each other, and Miriam Margolyes is unmissable.