We start with an empty stage adorned with punk memorabilia, ready for a grunge-femme concert. We end with tears and laughter; inspired to visit a sex therapist, start a band and smash the patriarchy. Led by director Celine Lowenthal and producer Emma Blackman, this is the captivating power of
Tour de force of gig theatre
The play blends chatty monologues and immersive scenes with rousing pop-punk performances, taking us on a journey through the ups and downs of a young woman's life. The central character is a challenging role, requiring an actor with incredible emotional versatility, comedic timing and fiery singing to carry the play's themes. Fortunately, Dani Heron fits the bill perfectly. She is magnetic as the unnamed protagonist, engaging the audience with relentless eye contact and boundless energy throughout the interval-less play. It is an unforgettable performance.
Heron is supported by four multi-talented multi-rollers. Rachel Barnes is so versatile that she must surely be three separate people in real life: the changes to her posture and voice make her mother, therapist, and ‘lovely lesbian’ totally distinct. Eve De Leon Allen is endlessly charming as one half of a polyamorous couple, with a remarkable singing voice. Sarah Workman is hilarious as teenage boyfriend Dean. Their delivery of texts during a confusing relationship scenario, “wot… lol?”, had us in stitches while conveying a sweet, sad vulnerability. Anya Pearson is a master of the guitar with a rare sense of vulnerability in her performance. A slight sense of surprise at the loving reception she received was the only sign of this being her acting debut; it is surely an avenue she will continue to explore.
Never off the stage, these actor-musicians also make up the rest of the band and play their instruments live. With constant interaction between bandmates, from shared smiles to guitar riffs and distinct choreography for each song, I felt like I was at a real gig, discovering a band on the rise.
The songs won’t stay in your head for days, but that's not the point. Led by co-musical directors Lilly Pollard and Anya Pearson, the music is emotional, raw, and often angry, amplifying the emotion behind each joy and trauma of our frontwoman's life. When my brain froze at a serious event on stage, ranging from rape to miscarriage, the songs brought emotional release.
The power of Sugar Coat lies in exploring extraordinary issues that happen all too often to ordinary people. First revealing the cost of silence, it finds hope in the possibility of healing, the power of honesty, and the impact of kindness in return. Yet, it also highlights that these events occur alongside everyday experiences, such as meeting weird housemates, admiring hot boys and excelling in your exams. Life does not stop at trauma, nor does trauma stop within life. Lowenthal should feel proud of their bold, creative direction. The play creates a nuanced, varied and realistic portrayal of the human experience I have seen nowhere else.
Compliments must also go to the secret sixth member of the band: the lighting, designed by Martha Godfrey. Impressive enough to feel like a concert at the O2 but thoughtful enough to never overwhelm the emotion on stage, it was the most creative I have ever seen in a smaller venue. I was particularly obsessed with the large, colour-changing letters spelling out “Sugar Coat” at the back of Ruth Badila’s impressive set. The technical team did an extraordinary job of timing hundreds of lighting cues in addition to managing the sound to perfection.
Overall, Sugar Coat is a tour de force of gig theatre. Finding the perfect balance between hilarity and emotional impact, Sugar Coat is a must-see for anyone looking for a powerful and unique theatre experience.