The Sugar House
Reviewed – 5th November 2021
“it’s hard to find fault in this production. Forceful, despairing and, I don’t mind admitting, quite tearful”
In light of this week’s #FreeLunchGate, I’d first like to say I was given a small plastic cup of house white at the beginning of the show. Despite this glamourous perk, I will do my best to give a balanced and fair review…
The Finborough Theatre is not a large theatre. In its current layout, it can seat 40, maybe 50 at a push. So to have a cast of six for such a little audience feels very exclusive, particularly after the seeming endless spate of one-person plays in the last year. It’s a real joy to see a full cast interacting, laying out their various intimacies and tensions. The stage is pretty tight, but The Sugar House is a family drama, and the small space only emphasises the family dynamics, sometimes chaotic, sometimes conspiratorial, the audience sat right in the lap of the action.
This is ostensibly a story about the Macreadies, a working-class family in 1960s Australia who are struggling to get out from under, set against a backdrop of Australia’s last state execution and a long unending fight against police corruption.
But it’s universal in its particularity, exploring problems of generational poverty, endemic hypocrisy and modern society’s love of destroying the old in favour of the new and expensive. And at its core, it’s about how painful and drawn-out real change necessarily is.
Director Tom Brennan has brought together a strong, scrappy cast. Everyone carries a double-edge of deep misery and wry humour throughout the script, and though I’m no expert in Australian accents, I didn’t hear a single bum note throughout, something I’d otherwise find incredibly distracting.
Janine Ulfane, playing the grandmother, gives an especially complex performance. Her character is loveable but deeply flawed, and Ulfane deftly explores all the varying shades between. Jessica Zerlina Leafe, playing the granddaughter Narelle, carries the main weight of the play, opening in the ‘present day’ as an adult, morphing in to her eight-year-old self in the ‘60s, eventually becoming an angry belligerent twenty-six-year-old in the ‘80s. It is a little bit jarring watching an adult play an eight-year-old for nigh on an hour, but given the quick changes and multi-decade-spanning timeline, I can see why Leafe has to play the child as well as the adult.
Justin Nardella’s design is necessarily simple, but doesn’t feel at all lacking. A white brick wall with a mulled window acts as both a versatile set-piece and a projection wall, showing footage of Ronald Ryan, the last man to hang in Australia, as well as the cogs and wheels of the old sugar house, where Narelle’s grandpa worked, and various other titbits. A desk and two fold-out chairs serve any other prop requirements for the most part, leaving space to focus on the cast whose number already nearly clutters the stage.
There are no superfluous scenes, or boring chunks of dialogue, nonetheless, writer Alana Valentine could do with cutting twenty minutes, just for pace’s sake. Otherwise, it’s hard to find fault in this production. Forceful, despairing and, I don’t mind admitting, quite tearful.
Reviewed by Finborough Theatre
Photography by Pamela Raith
The Sugar House
Finborough Theatre until 20th November
Other review from Miriam this year: