My Old Lady is 'an utterly engaging two hours of theatre' at the Barn in Welwyn Garden City

Paul Russell as Mathias and Celia Roberts as Chloé in My Old Lady at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City.

Paul Russell as Mathias and Celia Roberts as Chloé in My Old Lady at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City. - Credit: John Davies

Tim Hardy reviews My Old Lady, the first main stage production back at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City.

“French women can live a long time. It’s all the red wine and oysters.”

But how long can one elderly French woman live for?

I’m ashamed to say that, prior to watching this play, I was unaware of the fascinating 'viager’ system that is known – if not exactly widespread – across France.

Through such an agreement – and please forgive me if you know this – a house buyer makes a down payment and then a series of regular additional payments for as long as the seller is alive.

The seller, often an elderly widow, continues to live in the property until they die.

In My Old Lady, Mathias (Paul Russell), a washed-out, hard-drinking American, travels to Paris to sell a valuable apartment he has inherited from his estranged father.

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Once there, he discovers an old woman, Mathilde (Jan Palmer Sayer), living in the apartment with her daughter (Celia Roberts).

Paul Russell as Mathias, Celia Roberts as Chloe, and Jan Palmer Sayer as Mathilde in My Old Lady at the Barn Theatre

Paul Russell as Mathias, Celia Roberts as Chloé, and Jan Palmer Sayer as Mathilde in My Old Lady at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City. - Credit: John Davies

Mathias quickly learns that the apartment is one of those pesky ‘viager’ properties and that he will not actually be in possession of the apartment until Mathilde dies.

In addition to that, he owes her a life annuity of a hefty €2,400 a month.

What follows is an utterly engaging two hours of theatre, performed by a cast of three evidently at ease with both their brilliantly-written material and one another.

Indeed, so much of the joy of this play comes from seeing the brash, self-confessed “loser” Mathias both charm and be charmed by the two scholarly, slightly stubborn French women.

Paul Russell as Mathias in My Old Lady at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City.

Paul Russell as Mathias in My Old Lady at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City. - Credit: John Davies

It taps into the ‘odd couple’ trope I’ve never tired of; a meeting of minds that shouldn’t work but really, really does.

The script, especially in the first act, is packed with sharp, witty dialogue, often threatening to sway into overwritten territory but falling mercifully short.

Playful comments and insults pile up at an impressive speed, settling you into a cosy rhythm that you know, in your heart of hearts, will inevitably be disrupted as the plot progresses.

And, right on cue, the change of pace comes with some astounding plot twists.

The mood quickly shifts from pleasant to vitriolic, back to pleasant, onwards to vitriolic, and so forth.

Said twists, while genuinely surprising at times, never exist purely for shock factor nor, crucially, undermine the deep characterisation occurring throughout. 

Jan Palmer Sayer plays the elderly Mathilde to battle-axe Parisian perfection, exuding the right balance of physical frailty and mental sharpness.

Mathilde’s lived experiences form the basis of much of the narrative.

Palmer Sayer, thankfully, delivers these stories with the requisite twinkle-in-the-eye to maintain interest throughout.

Paul Russell as Mathias and Celia Roberts as Chloé in My Old Lady at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City.

Paul Russell as Mathias and Celia Roberts as Chloé in My Old Lady at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City. - Credit: John Davies

Celia Roberts portrays the initially prickly daughter Chloé with assured confidence, quietly building layers to her character as the performance progresses.

Her Parisian accent is also – to my admittedly Herts-moulded ears – absolutely spot on. A brilliant return to the Barn for her.

Paul Russell keeps the tension high and the humour flowing as the increasingly drunk Mathias.

Comic timing rarely fails him, while his character’s growing affection for the two women he’s cohabiting with feels well-paced and expertly realised.

From the charming Parisian apartment setting – brilliantly evoked by both lighting and set – to the well-honed script, this production is escapism of the highest order.

I can only recommend that you check it out for yourself, ideally with a well-earned glass of Château de Pennautier.  


My Old Lady by Israel Horovitz and directed by Hannah Sayer runs in the Main House at the Barn Theatre in WGC until Saturday, July 17, starting at 8pm.

Tickets cost £13 from the Barn Theatre box office on 01707 324300 or online at www.barntheatre.co.uk

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