“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.
“simply unmissable, irresistible, audacious and adorable; intelligent and invigorating.”
Midway through “Operation Mincemeat”, the musical from Spitlip, one of the characters quips that ‘you couldn’t write this!’. Based on true events, it embodies the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction adage. However, there is nothing strange about the truth that this show is unmissable, irresistible, audacious and adorable; intelligent and invigorating. That reads like the closing tagline of a review, so I’m wondering where I can go from here. On a Musical Development timeline, “Operation Mincemeat” is still a fairly young sapling, having premiered at the New Diorama Theatre only in 2019. They, too, must be asking where they can go from here. Because quite simply put, it’s already there! It’s got it all.
Based on the Allied invasion of Sicily in the Second World War, it tells the story of how two members of the British intelligence service managed to deceive Hitler by (dubiously and possibly illegally) obtaining the corpse of a Welsh tramp who died eating rat poison, dressing him up as an officer, planting false documents in a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist, and dropping him into the waters off the southern coast of Spain. The following morning it was dredged up by a fisherman. Although Spain was technically neutral, the documents still found their way into German hands. These documents detailed the Allies’ plans to invade Sardinia, when in fact it was Sicily all along. The Germans fell for it hook, line and sinker and, to cut a long story short, the liberation gathered speed. Yes – you couldn’t write it!
Outlandish as it is, SpitLip manage to embellish it further with a goldmine of quirky ideas, characters and scenarios, beautifully and joyously crafted songs, more laughs than you can really handle in one evening and even the odd, serious message thrown in for good measure. The multi rolling, gender-blind ensemble adopt a host of personalities amid a whirlwind of scenes and songs. The score is eclectic, encompassing rap, rock, swing, sea shanties, dance, dubstep, hip-hop and ballads to name a few; with leitmotifs recurring in perfect rhythm to the showstopping numbers that drive the show.
The writing and composing credits are attributed to SpitLip, which comprises David Cumming, Felix Hagan, Natasha Hodgson and Zoe Roberts. Cumming, Hodgson and Roberts make up the cast joined by Claire-Marie Hall and Jak Malone. I could exceed my wordcount reeling off the individual attributes of each cast member but, in truth, none needs to be singled out. Hagan, the Musical Director, is on keys with Ellen O’Reilly on bass and synth bass and Lewis Jenkins on drums and percussion. It would be a crime not to mention Sherry Coenen’s lighting and Mike Walker’s sound design. This is a show where each ingredient (not forgetting Jenny Arnold’s choreography and Helen Coyston’s costume) blends together to produce the perfect concoction. With parts this great it’s hard for the sum to be greater – but it manages.
The real-life Operation Mincemeat was a success. One that changed the course of history. Although Spitlip’s “Operation Mincemeat” probably won’t change the world, it will make its mark in the world of musicals. Every note, sung or spoken, in this show serves a purpose. Even the throwaway adlibs and asides. I’ve already used up my closing tagline, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat. “Operation Mincemeat” is simply unmissable, irresistible, audacious and adorable; intelligent and invigorating. I wish I had a few more hundred words to play with here, but if you want the detail, just go and see it. It’s unmissable. Did I say that already…?