This review of Sylvia first appeared in Offbeat News, our bi-monthly newsletter.

This quirky comedy raises the status of anthropomorphism as an acceptable literary genre. At its heart the play is a pretty basic examination of the marital tribulations of a middle-aged American couple. They both stand at a turning point. They are drifting apart after years of child-rearing and career-building while new pastures threaten or beckon. Yet would so much humour have been developed from such an all too common, tragic domestic situation? Without Sylvia, the dog, the development would have been heartbreakingly routine. Would the relationships have been so intense without the two parallel levels?

The subtext here was plain enough. I refuse to list the lengthy litany of hypothetical feminine wiles on show for fear of being accused of open misogyny. Nor is this an occasion for male shortcomings. We all recognise them. Instead, I shall plead a defence of anthropomorphology while admitting to frequent titters and guffaws at echoes of ensnarement and entrapment. Sylvia certainly had her claws into her new master, Greg.

Chris Janes’ production was positively frenetic, constantly enlivened by the rumbustious deportment of Sylvia, a wayward stray found in the local park. She was played with endearing vitality by Ashleigh Harper. She certainly took the biscuit, if that is the equivalent of a canine Oscar, with her portrayal of this loving, wilful, manipulative pet, but heaven help us if she were thwarted, as she bared her teeth. Who in the audience was not captivated by her doting facial expressions and adoring eyes as she strove to get her way? The best one-liner was of Sylvia picking up her email from the spray scent at the foot of a tree.

Greg was played with great conviction by Mark James. What a contrast in style with his recent role of the phlegmatic ‘Tail-end Charlie’ in Flare Path. On this occasion the feeling of his being reeled in by Sylvia was almost palpable, from initial pity and early attraction to fondness and eventually love In a gentle progression. His enthusiasm and devotion for his new companion seemed to be transmitted effortlessly both to audience and cast. Who did not enjoy Greg’s facial contortions in his almost childlike dealings with his chum? The ‘new tricks’ sequence was spellbinding. Yes, disbelief was suspended: this could have been real.

Greg’s wife was Kate (Hannah Leonard), solid, respectable, forging a new career for herself as a teacher of English literature, the cornerstone of the household. Whatever her initial and continuing misgivings were about adopting this stray, Greg and family remained the focus of her attention. How did she put up with this dog on a couch through their mutual loathing and potential rivalry? Yet maybe she too had learned a trick or two from Sylvia for, by a delightful inversion of roles, she surreptitiously fixed up her sabbatical in the United Kingdom behind Greg’s back. Her tolerance and understanding seemed endemic. Her part in the trio singing ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’ was especially poignant and rang of truth. Maybe it rang true for Greg as well but there seemed an ironic touch of ‘me first’ about it from Sylvia.

Paul Russell gave a cameo masterclass in characterisation. Those of us who recall his stoic, unflappable Squadron Leader in Flare Path will have marvelled at three such different interpretations. Firstly, he was Tom, the book-loving dog walker full of home-spun philosophy, with a reprise appearance when Sylvia sought out Bowser, her bit of rough in the park. Then, incongruously, he was Phyllis, a visiting grand lady, all hauteur and pretence, boasting a social calendar that reached far into the distant future. (I still have to work out why Sylvia was attracted to her dress, though comic it was to be sure.) Thirdly, he portrayed the ambiguously male or female shrink, Leslie, who probably needed the treatment couch more than Greg and Kate. Laugh-a-minute stuff played with enormous gusto.

As we have come to expect of a CoPs production, the set was economic and functional, the minimum required to move the scenes for us but none the less effective for all that. As far as I could tell, the technology worked perfectly and I particularly liked the leafy proscenium arch to convey the openness of the park. The projection onto the rear wall of Greg’s wallet photograph of an ageing Sylvia, so close to his heart, was a master stroke. The cast are to be commended for maintaining their American accents throughout, which appeared to invigorate the repartee.

In his programme notes, Chris tells us what first attracted him to this off-beat play. I would like to add that the inclusion of Sylvia in human form gave us latent depth and, in marketing terms, ‘two for the price of one’. A great choice to open the season.

Review by John Grisbrooke. Photographs by Steve Beeston.

Sylvia was written by A.R. Gurney and directed by Chris Janes. The production was staged at The Little Theatre in 2018.