An elderly mother and her middle-aged son are trapped living together in an east London home.
It’s a perfect breeding ground for rows, torment, and age-old wars to come to a head over and over again as the traumatic family history that forces the pair together fails to have the space it needs to breath. The second of Eugene O’Hare’s plays to be staged at this Finsbury Park address, Sydney & The Old Girl provides a snapshot into the lives of wheelchair reliant mother, Nell Stock, played by Miriam Margoyles, and son Sydney Stock, played by Mark Hadfield, who is trapped by a paranoia surrounding ambulance sirens and a deep fear of ‘others’.
O’Hare’s piece has its feet firmly in reality, with no great metaphor to unpack for the most part, and the pace and language impactful, human, and gripping to follow. Woven through the whole play are witty insults and bombastic clashes, which both Margoyles and Hadfield deliver with wonderful timing and tone. The former, as Nell, really does deliver a commanding performance. From the moment the lights rise, Margoyles catches your eye with her wry but haunted expressions, pulls you in, and doesn’t let you go for the remainder. Hadfield, too, plays the troubled loner expertly, keeping the intrigue and concern of the audience in perfect balance throughout.
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What’s gripping about Sydney & The Old Girl is its resistance to let you fully trust or root for anyone involved. The first act skips along with both dark comedy and ranting, frantic bile delivered in generous helpings. An elderly mother is reliant on the son she loathes to help with her basic needs, while that very son obliges only with a ruthless eye on his inheritance, and a grudge to hold over his view of the family’s past. It’s through the clashes caused by this that we get to see all sides of two people crying out for help, but expressing it through a hatred of the world that surrounds them.
In Nell’s carer, Marion, we see a glimmer of hope, as a person out to do nothing but please those under her care tries to give space for an elderly mother to release some of her parental tensions and find some calm and solace in an increasingly bile-filled environment. But even she can’t escape the toxicity of those she looks out for, eventually becoming an unwitting pawn in the Stock family’s bitter war. Vivien Parry plays the part with a charming blend of naivety and do-goodedness, allowing the fragility of both Nell and Sydney to be seen through the prism of her character’s good intentions, but leaving in her trail the question of whether any decision or will to please can be wholly good.
With the trauma and bitterness laid bare, O’Hare’s writing keeps you on your toes and allows the reality of the piece to shine. Unlike a lot of the lives we see in theatre, in the real world people and their stories are complex – all people are capable of doing bad things and making poor choices, there is no such thing as a hero or a villain. It’s this that O’Hare seems to tap into, offering little in the way of resolution to the piece’s twists and turns, and leaving the audience totally unsure as to who we want to succeed, or how it is we want to see the rest of this fractured family’s play out.
Directing, Phillip Breen has really brought out the best in O’Hare’s work, not allowing any line, expression or movement to be wasted, as the play races along with barely a blank spot of boredom in sight. If you’re looking for a play with a deep, philosophical, worldly point to prove, this piece will fail to satisfy. Where Sydney & The Old Girl succeeds though, is in offering a pacy glimpse into the mixed-up, terrifying, and complex environment that family life can become, all driven with gusto by Miriam Margoyles, a real tour de force.
Sydney & The Old Girls runs at Park Theatre until November 30.
Words by Ollie Cole.
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Also published on Medium.