Billed as an “hilariously well-observed comedy about relationships, nature and growing older”, the latest offering from the excellent Crescent Theatre in Birmingham is one of the oddest and funniest plays I’ve seen in a long time. An impressive cast rise to the considerable challenge of staging this 1995 American play by A. R. Gurney.
The ‘Sylvia’ of the title is a love interest with a difference: she’s adorable but demanding and her presence in Greg and Kate’s marriage throws up a host of interesting questions about love, compromise and mid-life crises. Oh, and she’s also a dog. Played by a person. So much potential for things to go wrong here but thankfully, in the capable hands of director Jaz Davison and a talented cast, it works.
R. Gurney’s considerable body of work (he wrote over 50 plays, musicals and novels) is largely focused on exploring the lives of the declining upper middle classes in America and ‘Sylvia’ is no exception. The play centres on empty-nesters Greg and Kate, 22-years into their marriage and living in Manhattan in the 1990s after a move from the suburbs. Greg’s decision to bring a stray dog named Sylvia (she has a name tag) into the marital apartment is the source of much comedy within the play but also allows for a deeper exploration of human relationships: with each other and with our pets.
Questions around the play’s possible sexism and misogyny in casting a woman as a talking dog are largely dispelled by Beth Gilbert’s Sylvia. In a performance of great physicality, she not only captures the tics and movements of our canine companions brilliantly, she also delivers the dialogue with childlike innocence and power. Her instant adoration of Greg - “I love you”, “I think you’re God” – goes to the heart of what makes so many of us dog lovers: they worship us and ask for very little in return. From the moment she bounds excitedly onto stage she embodies the role completely.
Vincent Fox brilliantly combines middle-aged angst and disaffection with a quiet charm in the role of Greg, whose love for Sylvia quickly develops into an obsession which threatens his marriage. His impulsiveness forces his wife to do all the adulting in their relationship but it’s hard not to be drawn to people who love animals. It’s often a sign of decency and despite his flaws, we empathise with Greg’s decision to offer Sylvia a home.
While Greg increasingly neglects his job and focuses all of his attention on Sylvia, his Shakespeare-loving English teacher wife Kate finds that life is throwing up career opportunities which we strongly suspect motherhood has previously prevented her from pursuing. Liz Plumpton’s excellent performance evokes a woman on the cusp of finally getting to know herself after years of sacrifice. We know she’s probably right about Sylvia (or Saliva as she sarcastically nicknames the unwelcome pet in her home) not fitting in with their Manhattan life but admire her willingness to give the new domestic arrangements a chance.
Gurney’s preference for one actor to play all of the other characters in the play (fellow dog-owner Tom, New York socialite Phyllis and therapist Leslie) is honoured in this production: Charlotte Gillet morphs nicely between the different roles in a series of confident performances which add further layers of complexity to Greg and Kate’s slowly crumbling marriage.
Why is it that we often find our pets, dogs in particular, so much easier to connect with than our own partners, families and friends? It’s a fascinating question which the play invites audiences to ponder. Perhaps it’s partly because the love we feel for other human beings is so inordinately complex that the contrasting simplicity of our love for dogs is much more attractive. Ultimately, much easier.
An impressive production of a challenging and funny play.
Sylvia is playing at The Crescent Theatre in Birmingham from 1st to 8th April 2023.