Eugene O’Hare’s debut play The Weatherman prompted mixed reactions when it premiered at London’s Park Theatre earlier this year. His follow-up is a continuation in many ways: nasty people with grim lives in small spaces, exchanging witty insults.
But the Pinter/McDonagh/Walsh imitation is pale. Plot, purpose and consistency of tone are all subservient to the smug black humour of O’Hare’s dialogue, and, boy, does it get tedious.
Miriam Margolyes plays Nell, an ageing East Ender. Mark Hadfield is her nasty, racist adult son Sydney. They spend their lives trading vicious insults, and occasionally violence. A kind Irish home helper – a wonderful, warm performance by Vivien Parry – comes between the two of them.
Hadfield doesn’t seem to know what to do with the character of Sydney. It’s an incredibly inconsistent performance: one minute you wonder if he’s meant to be lacking mental capacity, at other times he shows he’s completely in control.
Although Margolyes overdoes the facial contortions, she’s as entertaining as you’d expect, and especially good when she shows vulnerability – even fear – flashing quickly across her eyes or in the edge of her voice.
Sydney and the Old Girl is one of those dark plays that chucks around words like “mong” or “spastic” to shock. Over the course of almost two and half hours, it presents us with the murder of a boy with Down’s syndrome, the abuse of an elderly woman and a large amount of racism.
You end up wishing O’Hare either had the conviction to commit fully to dark humour for its own sake, or found something more to say about the ‘issues’ he half-heartedly throws up: motherhood, elder abuse, loneliness, vulnerability, intolerance.
Instead, it ends up being an unsatisfactory and unpleasant combination of both.