The studio at the Mill is an unprepossessing cuboid; the set for According to Sydney uninspiring (a garden bench and some scraps of ferns to denote a park) so there is little to prepare the lunchtime audience for the animation that Rose Henderson brings to the space.
The energy derives from a number of things: Gerry Lynch has written an intelligent and, for suburbanites everywhere, a piece that trades in the familiar. Lynch cut his playwright teeth on radio, so while the action is static, the writing sparkles with sharp observation – “Domestic dialogue was not an option”, a glorious pun on Orwell – the writer and the road in Rathgar; “I grew tired of being wrong”; “It was hell having him at home”; “Life is like a subject for an exam.” Behind the cozy and local lies a degree of discomfort.
Ruth has lost her husband of twenty years to a stroke. Now she’s half-heartedly doing 2.5 circuits of the park for her health (she’s a diabetic) and in every sense she’s clinging to the edge. She pauses on the bench to confide in the strangers before her. Her narrative is of Rathmines, trim lawns, a hatred of pigeons, murder mysteries – Morse and Frost – the Buttery in TCD, musicals and crooners, accountants and auctioneers and the minutiae of medical complaints. At one level it’s what one might overhear in the shopping-centre coffee shop. Its authenticity gives it traction, but the familiarity masks a menace.
Through Ruth’s narrative, the other main character - the invisible, deceased Sydney - emerges from behind the bourgeois façade as a monster. He is portrayed as a man who liked clarity of thought and purpose; hated fiction, loved history; reacted with tyrannical irritability to certain colours; had a fastidiousness that led him to hand-wash his own socks and to favour cremation – on grounds of hygiene and of economy. (She buries him, nevertheless, a minor revenge.) The convention of a long marriage barely conceals the condescension, the sneering and the bullying.
Rose Henderson’s portrayal of Ruth is spirited, lively, and full of facial and verbal nuance. Director Caroline Fitzgerald, with a lightness of touch, has allowed the actor plenty of room to develop the portrait of an interesting lady and to animate that neutral space. Henderson makes Ruth bright-eyed and positive. Is it the exhilaration of new-found release, or is it the brave face of the desolate widow? Really Sydney sounds so awful she’s far better off without him, but the twist in the plot is that “another woman” came to the funeral, and this has dented Ruth’s assurance. (“Did I know him at all?”)
There’s a psychological honesty about the piece. It presents a patina of normality, the polite desperation of the middle-classes, locked into arrangements that drain away the spirit. Deceits make it bearable: it seems that Sydney – incredibly – had a mistress; Ruth squirreled away some of the money she inherited from her mother. Scandals around marital failures (the son’s wife gone to California with a musician; her dentist brother-in-law decamped with the dental nurse) are hushed up. While Ruth can now buy the pink, comfortable shoes she wants, contemplate a ciggie or munch chocolate (in one excellent, timely moment the Kit-Kat becomes a kind of comfort blanket), and while she relives with some glee the way she taunted the despised spouse, just prior to demise, with oblique references to her first love – her victory is somewhat pyrrhic. She wonders if she helped him on his way (the sub-title is “...maybe I went too far in the end!”) but, as she strides off to the 45 bus-stop, there doesn’t seem to be a lot to her new-won freedom.