“The play feels old-fashioned, both in style and in theme”
The concept is simple, if bleak. Claire (Kathy Kiera Clarke) must feed her alcoholic sister Chrissy (Mairead McKinley) four cans of beer over the course of the morning, in order to stabilise her enough to get to a rehabilitation clinic. As the story develops, we also meet the ghost, or vision, of Chrissy’s teenage daughter, Heather (Carla Langley). These three women discuss, debate and disagree over their lives, their truths, and the future.
The idea is strong, and the performances are solid. McKinley is particularly powerful as the woman on the edge, ranting and raving from her sofa chair, and breaking down completely. We’re all familiar with Clarke’s comic chops, from her beloved role as Aunt Sarah in Derry Girls, but she proves more than able to tackle this darker material, navigating the complexity of Claire’s repression and perfectionism well.
The problem is with O’Hare’s script. There is no build, and little is held back. We learn within the first minute intimate details of how Chrissy’s alcoholism has been exacerbated by the death of her daughter. There is little more to learn. Claire and Heather both have long monologues, explaining their own secrets, but in Heather’s case it feels tangential. The monologues take us out of the claustrophobic room, where Claire is trapped with her drunk and volatile sister, and into an ether land, where the audience exists and is directly addressed. It’s a shame to reveal facts this way, as it loses that complex resentful intimacy between the sisters, which is by far the most interesting part of the play.
The designer, Niall McKeever, has lent into that claustrophobia, and the set is Chrissy’s chaotic mess of a sitting room. The stage itself, a glowing letterbox set far back into in the wall, makes the room feel as cramped as the situation these women are in.
The lighting, designed by Robbie Butler, begins mostly naturalistic, coming from lamps in the room. However, it shifts when Heather is on stage, nodding to the supernatural. As Chrissy’s situation brightens, the lighting design becomes more symbolic, something which the ending leans into.
The play feels old-fashioned, both in style and in theme. Much of what’s discussed feels familiar, especially a disconnected diatribe about kindness on the internet. Ghostly Heather’s monologue is preachy – constantly talking about what could have been and what might be. Having her look back from beyond the grave clangs against the gritty realism of Chrissy’s situation. The musical motif of Coldplay’s Fix You not only adds to the generally dated feel, but also gives Chrissy’s very real struggle a saccharine edge.
There is however, a completely fantastic moment where Heather says that being dead is much like being alive, except for a low hum in your left ear. This is pure genius, and I wish there had been more of this fresh weirdness in the play, which could have freed it from familiarity.
The characters are dealt with empathetically, and there are shining moments within this piece, but overall, it is held back by a lack of subtlety and tonal variety.
Sydney & the Old Girl is one of two debut full-length plays by Irish playwright Eugene O’Hare. Directed by Phillip Breen, the play spotlights the miserable lives of the elderly Nell Stock (Miriam Margoyles) and her son Sydney (Mark Hadfield). Sydney, who has moved back into the family home temporarily, blames his mother for the death of his younger brother Bernie and Nell admits bluntly that her son “creeps her out”. Nell’s cheery Irish carer Marion Fee (Vivien Parry) is caught in the middle of the pair, acting as a trump card for Nell to laud over her son and an object of romantic obsession for Sydney. The trio are all making careful steps towards coming out on top whether that financially, morally or purely to spite one another.
Nell and Sydney are both unreliable narrators and offer a consistently conflicting series of events. There initially appears to be nothing more than blind hatred between them but there are suggestions of something more complex: a dysfunctional co-dependency brought about through grief. The pair insulting one another does unfortunately often take precedence over exploring their relationship any deeper.
Margoyles shines throughout the performance. The audience will quickly forget that it is the famous thespian before them and be wholeheartedly convinced that she is in fact Nell. For example, Nell, confined to a wheelchair for most of the play, walks gingerly at the end of the performance. This elicited gasps from the audience who presumably forgot that Margoyles herself can walk just fine.
Hadfield is perfectly odd for the role of Sydney and he exudes an aura of tragic loneliness. He is decidedly unpleasant but, as with his relationship with Nell, it would be good if he had some more tender moments. There is a slither of sympathy for Nell implanted in the audience, but Sydney is not so complexly presented. As a plot point, it is a shame to see the all too familiar trope of a man fixating on a woman who he feels that he can open up to emotionally. Though this undoubtedly contributes to Sydney’s creepiness, it is thoroughly predictable.
Parry is a natural on stage and her first appearance bustling into Nell’s house is a particularly strong scene. Her development in the second half is unexpected which is a credit to Parry’s non-assuming nature. Marion also provides a much-needed break from the tension between warring mother and son.
The set (Max Jones and Ruth Hall) is wonderfully intimate creating a sense that the audience is privy to these awkward family exchanges. The audience looks onto a dated living room with a floral carpet and dark panelled walls with a front door on the right-hand side. An alcohol cabinet, a broken television set, an armchair and a small dining table fill the space. A small kitchen occupies the back left of the stage and a hallway leads off to the rest of the house. The space is used well, and the cast move around it confidently.
The lighting (Tina Mac Hugh) is excellent. The cold light of the early morning floods the set and the stage darkens gradually as night approaches. The flashing sirens of ambulances are also mimicked convincingly. There is a rather gratuitous projection show at the production’s end that would have perhaps worked better as a means of breaking up the performance mid-way rather than stand out so unnaturally at its finale.
Sydney & the Old Girl is a powerful, funny and uncomfortable watch. The acting is sublime, but a more nuanced exploration of the play’s characters and their relationships would be gladly welcomed.