Claudia Jefferies is a charismatic, confident performer – you watch her and have to give her the respect she knows is her due. Syd and Sylvia has a fantastic concept behind it and, because of this, the makings of a great solo show. Jefferies plays both Syd and Sylvia, a husband and wife, the latter of whom sings in their working men’s club, but who has been having ideas above her station since starting her Women’s Studies classes.
On paper, this should build into something tense and horrible to watch, and Jefferies does manage to wring some uncomfortable moments out of her audience, but the 50-minute piece is very disjointed, as this work tends to be. I’d argue, however, that the disjointedness doesn’t often serve the object of the show, in its aim to increase awareness of sexual harassment and challenge the audience out of complacency. Syd and Sylvia trade the floor between each other, an ‘audience member’ is treated badly to highlight the way we treat women, there’s shouting, sneering and defiance, but no point of breakout clarity.
You might argue that perhaps there can’t be, when it comes to examining the never-ending cycle of gendered abuse and mistreatment out there, and I’d be hard pressed to disagree. I can’t help feeling, however, that if the concept of the warring couple had been leant on a little harder and a little more consistently, the awful relationship would have stayed with us more because of its unnerving quality. As a result, the hardest hitting points for me were the story of a 14-year-old’s groping in a club and the recorded voices of survivors’ stories, as we see the way they impact Sylvia; the bar singer’s own jokes and songs are not particularly witty or incisive, and unfortunately don’t really linger. We don’t have a good sense of what happens in Syd and Sylvia’s story together, or a real resolution that things will change, despite the ending rendition of Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’.
And I don’t think it’s wrong to want something more powerful or different from Syd and Sylvia. The Camden People’s Theatre’s Calm Down Dear Festival is a good initiative and one that should be attended, listened and responded to. Syd and Sylvia, with more focus and development, could become a punchier beast which better reflects the pain and anger behind its concept, and makes a bigger difference due to that.
Photo: Jemima Yong