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Theatre Sidney and the Old Girl, Park Theatre London

Litany of unremitting hatred between mother and son is a real theatrical downer

EUGENE O’HARE’S play, which gets its world premiere at the Park Theatre, has possibly two of the most unsympathetic characters ever presented in contemporary theatre.  

It’s a tour de force but only as an example of how to make an audience feel uncomfortable and unsettled. Presumably, this is the artistic intention of the playwright.

Set in present-day east London, it centres on the relationship between Nell Stock (Miriam Margolyes) and her son Sidney (Mark Hadfield). Confined to a wheelchair, she’s dependent on Sidney who, in turn, is reliant on his mother for somewhere to live.

Their relationship is defined by a mutual abusive contempt and dislike and to say that there’s no love lost between mother and son is an understatement. They’re trapped in oppositional orbit, a nightmare of their own invention, in which dissonance and hostility prevail.

Each blames the other for their own misfortune in a relentless barrage of put-downs, insults and borderline physical abuse.

Into this scenario is inserted the well-intentioned Irish care assistant, Marion Fee (Vivien Parry). Uncomfortable in the presence of women, Sidney retreats into avoidance mode whenever she appears and, on the odd occasion when he must engage with her, is ambiguously drawn towards her. Clumsily evasive, he’s unable to prevent his anti-Irish tendencies from surfacing.

Nell manipulates Marion into a plot to disinherit Sidney — a malicious act of vengeance which unravels with disastrous consequences.

Unrelenting in its meanness, there’s no hint in the play of the pathos or humour evident in similar relationships in characters such as Steptoe and his son or Alf Garnett and his family. While some of the put-downs induce involuntary laughter, overall the unpleasantness prevails.

Where the play does have strength is in the performance of the actors. Parry provides effective and sustained support as the well-meaning Marion and Hadfield gives a convincing physical and psychological portrayal of a loveless, unhappy, disillusioned and vulnerable loser.

Margolyes is excellent as Nell, who we sense has potential as a doughty, combatant and resilient Eastender. But she’s fatally undermined by her corrupted relationship with her son.

Runs until November 30, box office: parktheatre.co.uk.

 

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