The Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 5th April 2023
A R Gurney’s comedy from 1995 gets a spirited revival at the Crescent. Telling the story of New York empty nesters, Greg and Kate who find their lives overturned by the arrival of Sylvia, a dog Greg brings home from the park. An instant bond forms between Greg and the dog, fast becoming an obsession, but Kate is less than welcoming and plots to oust Sylvia from their lives.
What lifts the play from the humdrum is the fact that Sylvia is portrayed by an actor, enabling the dog to crack jokes, swear like a navvy and be generally charming. Here, Beth Gilbert rises to and surpasses the challenge, managing to be cute and disgusting, as dogs invariably are. Yes, Sylvia is anthropomorphised but there are also well-observed instances of canine behaviour to remind us that Sylvia is not some lesser class of human – although her obvious humanity provokes thoughts about how some castes/classes/races treat other human beings. Gilbert sustains incredible energy throughout the performance, commanding the stage just as Sylvia dominates the couple’s lives.
Vincent Fox’s Greg is a middle-aged man whose life is given purpose by Sylvia, at the expense of his working life and his marriage. His obsession borders on the unhealthy and so of course Liz Plumpton’s Kate has no choice but to intervene. Kate is the less likeable of the pair – she’s returning to her career now the kids have gone, and so is also perhaps neglectful of her marriage, providing a hole for Sylvia to fill. The roles don’t seem like a stretch for either Fox or Plumpton – the accents sound natural and effortless – but they both imbue the roles with enough nuance to muddy the polarised waters that separate the couple.
Jan Davison’s direction keeps things tearing along, like Sylvia straining on her leash. The scene where Sylvia spots a cat under a car is superbly handled, wringing every bit of humour from the encounter. The play could easily come across as a prolonged comedy sketch and outstay its welcome, but Davison keeps us hooked in and, push coming to shove, we are invested enough to care about who will prevail: dog or wife?
There is good support from Charlotte Gillet, playing three roles: Tom, a dog owner Greg befriends in the park, Phyllis, Kate’s stuck-up friend, and Leslie, a gender-ambivalent counsellor the couple consult for help.
Apart from a tendency to have his characters referring to each other by name every other line, Gurney’s writing is sharp, orchestrating some very funny situations, and of course manipulating us to feel for Sylvia as the inevitable denouement looms, keeping on the right side of mawkishness. This is the kind of thing Ayckbourn does so well over on this side of the pond, although I suspect his Nick and Kate would be more ridiculous. I wonder if the play would be more interesting if Greg and Kate couldn’t understand Sylvia, and only the audience is privy to her thoughts and wisecracks….
An amusing evening at the Crescent, another simple yet sophisticated production. Sylvia will go after your funny bone and touch your heart.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Bad dog! Beth Gilbert as Sylvia and Liz Plumpton as Kate (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)