Theatre | Sylvia: Review
Remember Doug, the dog in the Pixar film ‘Up’? The one with the gadget collar that translates his thoughts into English? For me personally, that nifty comic device was one of the loveliest, funniest things about a lovely, funny film, and I couldn’t help but want more of the talking dog. Well, that’s precisely the central idea behind ‘Sylvia’, the latest offering from LUU Theatre Group.
It’s the story of Greg and Kate, a middle-aged married couple smack bang in the middle of what Kate’s gender-ambiguous shrink calls “the danger years”. The kids have left for university, and now that they’ve flown the nest Kate’s looking to restart her career and Greg’s struggling to stay committed to his. He’s after something a bit more…“real”. Luckily for him, reality quickly appears in the form of Sylvia, a stray dog Greg stumbles across in the park and instantly decides to take home. The eponymous canine is played with enthusiastic abandon and spot-on comic timing by Ellie Taylor, in a role that, by its very nature, would have been awkward to watch had she held anything back. Thankfully, she’s got it all: the wide-eyed fear and adoration, the shaky leg when tickled behind the ear, and a surprisingly realistic sounding bark. It’s a joy to watch, for Greg and the audience alike. However, there are no prizes for guessing that Kate doesn’t feel the same. She wants Sylvia gone. They’ve got no time for a dog; who will look after her all day? Greg will. How? He’ll get himself “temporarily laid-off” from work, that’s how. And, just like that, a rift between husband and wife is formed.
The problem is, neither of them is right, and neither of them is wrong; he’s being delusional and she’s being cruel. Various supporting characters proceed to take sides on the issue; Kate’s snooty recovering-alcoholic of a friend and boundary-oblivious therapist on the one hand, and a slightly creepy macho geezer Greg meets in the park, supporting dog and owner, on the other. It’s a wonderful gallery of grotesques to be dealing with, and the cast put their all into making sure they’re not upstaged entirely by the rather less-human focus of the play. The only downside to this is that the relatively naturalistic performances of Kate and Greg are sometimes smothered.
The couple are, however, the heart of the play. The bulk of the action focuses on the age-old, unconditional, inexplicable love between dog and master, and how that master’s wife feels as though she has been somehow replaced. In this way, the brilliance of the show is paradoxical; it lovingly explores the nature of man’s best friend, milking the central joke for all it’s worth along the way. (The moment when Sylvia hurls foul-mouthed, almost racist, abuse at an innocent cat is really quite inspired.) But it also proves that all good stories about animals aren’t really about animals at all. The result is a charming, genuinely funny comedy, performed with gusto on all sides.