Sydney and the Old Girl at the Park Theatre review ***

Sydney and the Old Girl

Park Theatre, 1st November 2019

After the resounding success of Madame Rubinstein at the Park Theatre a couple of years ago it was a pretty easy sell to get BUD, KCK and the SO along to the same venue to see our favourite potty-mouthed, near-octogenarian National Treasure, Miriam Margoyles’s latest theatrical outing. SATOG however, whilst, when it got going, offering the twinkly eyed MM opportunities to deliver trademark laugh out loud waspish epithets, was a very different kettle of fish to the straight comedy of Madame R, as either of its lead characters might have said.

MM played the cantakerous Old Girl, Nell Stock, holed up in her shabby east End house, with 50 year old, live at home son Sydney, played by the much admired Mark Hadfield, who, I am ashamed to say, I didn’t initially recognise. Maybe that was because to say Sydney is peculiar would be a massive understatement. He is the archetypal oddball loner and he and Mum are locked into a textbook love-hate relationship. The setting smacks of Steptoe and Son and the dialogue that writer Eugene O’Hare employs to express the toxic dynamic hints at Pinter, or, in contemporary terms, maybe a palatable Enda Walsh . Sydney holds some fairly rum, if unconvincing, opinions, about women and foreigners, and when he does go out, nurses a pint in the local whilst pretending to be with friends. Nell simultaneously detests and relishes the hold she has over him.

Nell’s mobility is limited, spends most of her time in a wheelchair, and needs constant care. Cue Irish home help Marion Fee (Vivien Parry), all round good egg and saviour to the little Catholic orphans of London. After some variable, in terms of length and quality, set up scenes, we discover that Nell is looking to cut Sydney out of her will and deny him the inheritance of the house on which he is fixated.

Which is why I had anticipated an Ortonesque payback in the second half involving some artful double crossing between the three and the acerbic humour ramped up. I was wrong, Instead the guilt which binds Nell and Sydney together, hinted at earlier with Sydney’s fear of sirens, is given a full blown reveal complete with lighting (Tina MacHugh) and sound (Dyfan Jones) effects.

I assume that it was Mr O’Hare’s deliberate intention to shift tone through his play but it left the Tourist unable to settle on plot and character. Which is a shame because when MM and MH got going in the second half, before the overwrought ending, this was a fine black comedy. Vivien Parry had less success trying to persuade us of Marion’s ambivalence. Philip Breen’s direction gives the actors time and space to deliver the lines, as does the elaborate set of co-designers, Ruth Hall and Max Jones. But despite the championing of the director and cast the play never quite hits its stride. Nothing wrong with mixing comedy and tragedy, the lodestar of best dramatists in history. It’s just that without a thorough stir the ingredients can sometimes be half-baked and a bit too lumpy to satisfactorily digest.

P.S. Would be great if the next time MM takes to this, or another London stage, it would be in a reprise of her one woman show. Ideally as unexpurgated as possible. Or better still if the production of Lady In The Van that the good people of Melbourne, MM’s adopted home, enjoyed last year could find its way here.

An Enemy of the People at the Nottingham Playhouse review ****

An Enemy of the People

Nottingham Playhouse, 28th September 2019

Another day, another Ibsen update. After Tanika Gupta’s intelligent relocation of A Doll’s House to colonial India and Cordelia Lynn’s not quite so successful ageing of Hedda Gabler, the Tourist’s next stop was Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s transformation of Henrik’s prototype eco-warrior and inconvenient truth teller, Doctor Thomas Stockmann, into Doctor Theresa. Marvellous to see three immensely talented women writers transform the always relevant work of Norway’s groundbreaking progressive genius.

Of course Ibsen’s target in AEOTP is not the way in which the hidebound morality of C19 Norway, for which read the rest of Western society, stifled liberal progress and especially women. For sure it was written as a riposte to the critics of its “scandalous” predecessor Ghosts, and takes a potshot at the hypocrisy of the conservative community in which it is set, but for me it is more a critique of the greed and corruption that disfigures uncontrolled capitalism.

It therefore doesn’t need the gender change to work as drama but, my goodness, as a conceit it really works. Stockmann, deliberately, is normally a man who lets his ego get the better of him. Ibsen thus plays with our sympathies. He is nailed-on in the right when he takes on the municipal authorities in the form of his boss, the mayor and, famously, his brother, Peter Mattsson, and plainly deliberately poisoning your guests is not a good look for a spa town, but the way in which Tommy takes his case to people and press does come across as, shall we say, a little overwrought. Dr Theresa is made of the same stuff, but as a woman, with a supportive, though tested, husband and a patronising elder brother, the motivations for her urgency become satisfyingly complex.

The prolific and multi-talented Rebecca Lenkiewicz has previous with AEOTP so knows it inside out. Here she has taken a literal translation from Charlotte Barslund, and deftly adapted it to a modern vernacular, without sacrificing any of the small-town claustrophobia and moral ambiguity that informs the original. There are a few moments when the attempt to shoe-horn in today’s political discourse – fake news, whistle blowers, the liberal elite vs the manipulated masses, the disparaging of expert opinion and that little matter called Brexit – are somewhat too transparent, the play doesn’t need it as it is already all there, but the central gender conceit, and the fact that “strong woman” Dr T won’t be silenced, really resonates.

As director Adam Penford plainly relishes the opportunity to build on such firm foundations of plot, character and text as does the cast led by her off the telly Alex Kingston. Ms Kingston, as the character demands, doesn’t hold back, occasionally leaving some of her colleagues in her defiant wake, but fortunately the one person who has to take her on, performance wise as well as dramatically, is him off the telly Malcolm Sinclair as brother Peter. He was magnetic as Eisenhower in David Haig’s Pressure and here is all supercilious, Rees-Moggian entitlement as he attempts to bulldoze his amoral way through Dr T’s evidence and objections, questioning her science and her sanity.

Of course AEOTP is not just about the battle of wills between brother and sister. Emma Pallant also stands out as Ulrika Hovstad the, now female, editor of the progressive local paper, prepared to turn principle on a sixpence when money starts talking and opinion turns, as does Tim Samuels as smarmy Aslaksen, the spineless printer. Deka Walmsley as steadfast husband Christopher, Richard Evans as his father, the contrary, and wealthy, tannery owner, Morten Kil, Donna Banya as idealist daughter Petra, Jordan Peters as Hovstad’s sidekick Billing and Karl Haynes as loyal friend Captain Horster, all slot in admirably.

There is humour in the adaptation, though maybe not quite in the way Ibsen intended, and Tina MacHugh’s lighting, Drew Baumohl’s sound and Frans Bak’s composition, all step in during the crucial scenes to up the required ante alongside Morgan Large’s versatile set, notably in the impassioned speech that Dr T makes to the Skein community in the pouring rain in Act V. This is where Dr T’s frustration with the masses boils over and her contempt is barely hidden, (and where some of Ibsen’s whackier notions are vocalised in the original). Sound familiar? Us London metropolitan elite patronising you provincial dimwits. It is powerful stuff made more so because even in adaptation these same arguments were being rehearsed in C19 Norway (as they were in 5th century BCE, Jacobean England or C18 Germany if you pay attention to the finest dramatists).

Another winner then from Adam Penford and his team. As with Robert Hastie in Sheffield and James Dacre in Northampton he keeps his directorial powder dry, but when he does let fly theatre that is on a par with the very best the capital can offer is invariably the result.