Hell is other members of your family. Eugene O’Hare’s taut psychological drama about an elderly mother and her middle-aged son trapped in a state of mutual loathing pulls off the difficult trick of being bleak and claustrophobic yet darkly comic at times.
Miriam Margolyes’s Nell is a foul-mouthed monster. Yet she is vulnerable too. In a wheelchair, her old cardi stretched across her midriff, she’s living out her final years in her shabby flat in east London. Even the television is on the blink. Her son, Sydney, a drab loner with empty eyes, lives there too after losing his home. The pub is his only refuge, but nobody, it seems, talks to him there.
Forced together amid the living room chintz, he and his mother bicker like a 21st-century Albert and Harold Steptoe, only with added venom and, at times, an unsettling sexual undertone. On the surface, at least, there is barely a trace of maternal instinct in Nell. She seldom misses an opportunity to insult the man who has the misfortune not to be her favourite son — that honour goes to Bernie, who had Down’s syndrome and died decades ago.
Sydney is at the end of his tether. The noise of sirens passing on the streets can tip him into a rage. Fragile truces break out whenever Nell’s Irish carer, Marion, pays a visit. But in the end she too is drawn into the domestic hostilities.
O’Hare and the director Philip Breen know how to turn the screw. The set by Max Jones and Ruth Hall is rich in domestic detail; all it needs to be complete is the smell of Jeyes fluid. The writing, though, is full of acid lines. Nell takes great pleasure in telling Marion how friendless her son has always been. “He were always the last one to be picked for the school teams. And that was after the twins with the callipers.” If Margolyes dominates the stage from her seat — we sense her presence even when she is out of sight on one of her trips to the bathroom — Mark Hadfield injects the ideal level of bewilderment and self-pity as Sydney. Vivien Parry is note-perfect as the ingenuous Marion. As the play progresses we begin to glimpse that Sydney’s sense of having lost his place in the world has a political dimension. When Nell seems on the verge of cheating him out of what he sees as his rightful inheritance, his response plunges into incoherent rage against the world. It’s an almost apocalyptic ending, but O’Hare renders it plausible.
Posted : 29th April 2020