Sydney and the Old Girl at the Park Theatre: A Great Cast in a Dark Show

Though Sydney might be referring to his mother’s television when he comments “If you don’t treat things right, they get broke,” the comment is as applicable to his own psyche. Following the great success of The Weatherman also at the Park Theatre last year, Eugene O’Hare’s Sydney and the Old Girl marks another strong piece that explores a (troubling) dark corner of modern England. 

Wheelchair-bound Nell Stock (Miriam Margolyes) spends her days in a dingy flat in East London. The words grubby, tattered, and uncomfortable are just a few words that apply to both Nell and Max Jones and Ruth Hall’s set. It has been left to Sydney (Mark Hadfield) to care for his mother with visits from Marion (Vivien Parry), a care nurse. From the opening scene, however, O’Hare establishes the verbal and occasionally physical game of warfare played between mother and son: the two trade insults that are darkly funny (Nell claims to have had the “longest dose of post-natal depression” that’s worthy of being recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records) until Sydney douses Nell’s head with vodka and holds a lighter to her.

The amount of psychological teasing, testing and torture throughout the show leaves audiences unsure of any character. With Sydney, any object he picks up feels as if it could be used as a weapon and the contents of his large red bag are left to be inferred right until the very end. Director Phillip Breen has ensured his audiences can only ever feel a disgusted ambivalence about them all, but one problem does persist: all of the actors often play to the centre of the stage, meaning if you’re sitting to the side you miss the facial expressions of the sublime actors that, in a play like this, feel ever so important. 

Now, let’s face it, if you’re here it’s probably to see Miriam Margolyes, that irreverent elderly woman who tells naughty stories on Graham Norton’s chat show. That’s not the case in Sydney and the Old Girl, where Margolyes from her opening salvo revels in her vicious comments about her son’s ineptitude. Despite spending the show mostly in her wheelchair, she’s a wonderfully physical actress, and though her character is despicable, it’s a great performance. 

Miriam Margolyes and Mark Hadfield.

You might come for Margolyes, but you’ll stay for the performances from Vivien Parry and Mark Hadfield. The former brings a necessary warmth to the show, whilst the latter captivates in his pathetic portrayal of Sydney. The minute audiences feel sorry for him, Hadfield shatters this pathos with an abusive act, an uncanny action, or a racist comment. It’s a worthy performance of a man shattered by hatred and left to spend a miserable life alone picking up the pieces.

In its uncomfortable characters (who also often expound racist and homophobic views), O’Hare’s black comedy is reminiscent of Harold Pinter and Martin McDonagh. Given the show has already sold out, a transfer might well be on the cards. Yet, though it might feel as if O’Hare captures maverick if realistic characters, quite why this tale of utter hatred is needed or to what purpose it builds is uncertain. Marion asks Nell if she’ll have a Christmas tree this year. There are better presents I can think of for the plucky theatregoer looking for a night out.     


Sydney and the Old Girl is at the Park Theatre until 30 November.

Photograph credit: Pete Le May.

Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL. @AntWalker_Cook

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