THE SUGAR HOUSE
by Alana Valentine
Directed by Tom Brennan
Finborough Theatre – until 20 November
Nobody who sees this award-nominated Australian drama is likely to accuse playwright Alana Valentine of lacking ambition. The Sugar House is stuffed to the gills with incident, loaded with significance and weighed down by the passing on of trauma and tradition through family generations.
Set in what is now the chi-chi Sydney waterfront suburb of Pyrmont, the play moves between 1967 (when the district was industrial and working class) through the turbulence of change in the 1980s to 2007 when wealthy internationals are looking to buy expensive apartments in the converted mills and warehouses of the area. One such building is the sugar refinery that gives the piece it’s name. It was once the focal point of the Macreadie family because that’s where the breadwinner worked but now, or rather 2007, legal whiz kid granddaughter Narelle is viewing flats there. It turns out there is a lot more to Narelle than her high powered career and extended spending power though, and that is much of the meat of the play. Cue repeated metaphors along the lines of sugar rising to the top of the molasses.
Valentine’s script is powerfully female driven, the seismic changes in the sociopolitical landscape of Australia’s second city being filtered through the experiences and relationships of three generations of Macreadie women. There’s matriarch June, tough as old boots in the homestead but an ingratiating wheedler when faced with external power, endlessly favouring her feckless criminal son over her damaged but resilient daughter Margo, who in turn is mum to rebellious Narelle. So far, so clichéd.
Thing is, all of this basically works. It may not feel particularly original, except that for English audiences the Aussie setting may seem novel, but these tropes still make for compelling storytelling, rather like a novel on stage. The first act in particular feels like an adaptation from a different medium, with it’s big emotions, big themes and garrulous, impassioned talk. It’s when Valentine makes her characters step outside the expected that the play loses credibility, or at least it does in Tom Brennan’s energised but heavy handed staging.
There’s not a lot that doesn’t get thrown at the wall here, from urban gentrification to self harm, activism (as a student, Narelle becomes an agitator to uncover the reasons behind sundry deaths in police custody, a passion that is bewilderingly shelved in one line when she scores a fancy legal internship) to terminal illness. It doesn’t coalesce, but neither does it bore, despite some of it seeming pretty unbelievable.
Brennan’s production is strongly cast and features a pair of superb professional stage debuts from Jessica Zerlina Leafe, skilfully negotiating and differentiating Narelle’s stages of development, and Leah Dube as a fierce interloper into the family via marriage. As June and Margo respectively, Janine Ulfane and Fiona Skinner make a formidable mother and daughter, even if the characters are pretty hard to care about. Adam Fitzgerald imbues the adored son Ollie with warmth and energy, but lacks the requisite blunt brutishness. Patrick Toomey does really beautiful work as a number of senior male figures.
The use of projections on the walls of Justin Nardella’s corrugated iron-meets-urban chic set are an invaluable help in establishing time and locale.
Some of the dialogue feels overwritten, the playwright’s undeniably eloquent words sounding unconvincing coming from the mouths of some of these characters, and the play could do with some judicious cutting. Despite all this, it is refreshing to see new-ish Australian writing on the London stage, and I would be very interested to see more of Valentine’s work.