Australian playwright Alana Valentine makes her UK debut at the Finborough Theatre with The Sugar House, in its first production outside of her home country, where it was nominated for Best New Australian Work in the Sydney Theatre Awards 2018.
an exciting opportunity to see a modern work from Australia and some very impressive performances.
Matriarchal power and influence, or in some places the lack of it, dominate this intergenerational story of working class people on the wrong side of the law. Janine Ulfane gives a powerfully impassioned performance as grandmother June, the dominant head of the house, bringing the bitter experiences of the Macreadie family over the years to bear on the current situation. The belief that ‘bad blood’ has passed through generations of this family, despite all efforts to overcome it, lies deep in her veins, and Ulfane manages to contrast June’s hard-hearted worldliness with moments of vulnerability and painful reflection. Her daughter, Margot, has other issues. If you have any experience of people who carry a chip on their shoulder, then you will recognise how vividly Fiona Skinner demonstrates Margo’s overwhelming conviction that her brother Olli (Adam Fitzgerald) was always the favourite child. Her bitter resentment surfaces time and again in every argumentative encounter filled with blame that she has with her mother, be it her daughter’s rebelliousness or her failed marriage.
Jessica Zerlina Leafe is charged with being her daughter Narelle, whose character appears at three different ages. She captures her as an inquisitive eight-year-old, a rebellious and anarchistic student and ultimately as a successful lawyer. Her portrayals are convincing, ranging from the cute and curious, to the raging and resentful and in the bookending stage, the confident and committed.
There is plenty of material here, but the play interweaves much more, giving the feeling that it is trying to do too much. It engages in the issue of gentrification that has turned the industrial area of Pyrmont, where the sugar factory once stood, into a warehouse wonderland for well-oiled flat-hunters. Narelle’s grandfather worked there and so we have elements of his story and his relationships with the rest of the family, all very well done by Patrick Toomey as Sidney Macreadie who also plays numerous other parts with equal conviction.
The concern raised by the looming execution of a prisoner raises the capital punishment debate that is stretched to encompass the unlikely consequences of Ollie Macreadie’s brushes with the law. Fitzgerald successfully brings a range of emotions to this role that reveal Ollie’s sensitivity, naivete and potentially brutal nature. Lea Dube, in her professional stage debut, convincingly portrays the gradual acceptance and integration of his girlfriend Prin into the family, but that is yet another strand.
Director Tom Brennan has skilfully blocked the characters in the narrow confines of the Finborough, giving them space to pour out the emotional intensity of this work. He’s helped by Justin Nardella’s compact set that very simply conveys the old and the new of Pyrmont.
The Sugar House presents an exciting opportunity to see a modern work from Australia and some very impressive performances.