FringeReview UK 2020
Directed by Oscar Toeman, designed by Rebecca Brewer with Lighting Design by Elliot Griggs. Sound Designer and Composer Daniel Balfour with Movement Director Chi-San Howard and Costume Supervisor Molly Syrett. Till February 22nd.
It’s not till towards the end that we learn what Sugar Syndrome is: a concentration of all wartime-rationed sugar in one hit, ahead of the next bomb falling on you. Jan Carter’s trying to grasp her daughter’s world with an anecdote from her mother. In this play it’s not love-bombing and sex, though that’s part of it; it’s through a desolate clarity seventeen-year-old Dani Carter discovers adulthood. Jan might guess a wrong cause for it, but her storytelling’s spot-on. The Sugar Syndrome summarises Dani’s life in ways Jan wouldn’t dare imagine.
Lucy Prebble’s 2003 debut, written and produced at the Royal Court when she was 22, feels both nostalgic and prescient. As Helen Lewis points out in her programme essay, we don’t have moderated chatrooms any more or points where the dial-up bill appears as a whammy on our parents’ Friends and Family bill. But we don’t necessarily make it a jump-off for physical meetings ether. Internet on our smartphones is more wholly virtual, more onanistic.
Dani’s own prison-world – she was sent away to an institution to cure an eating disorder – crucially maps onto another’s. We hurt into the damages we look for. With deadly precision we love in the shape of our wounds. Prebble’s parallels might be neat but suspend disbelief or not, they’re the mood-music of what happens. Why Prebble’s work hasn’t been revived before now – she’s only written three more plays – is a mystery.
Directed by Oscar Toeman, Rebecca Brewer’s design is in the first half a virtual chatroom with dial-up sounds from the early noughties internet. There’s a gleaming black floor skirted with a rectangular running light signal and another echoed above – constituting much of Elliot Griggs’ lighting design.
In the Second Act the world’s a chaos of living, full of dinge and on one side an old record-player with dad-rock LPs. Two provisional-looking living spaces spilling out of cardboard boxes. Creepiest are a pair of descending swings lowered whenever two characters meet, in a children’s playground.
Sound designer and composer Daniel Balfour invokes the noughties with almost nostalgic crackle, as well as the Dylan – the point too where Chi-San Howard’s movement turns from restless pacing to soulful communion.
So in a pre-virtual world Dani’s prepared to leap into the very physical with awkward 22-year-old music critic wannabe Lewis Sampson, played with gawk and flinch by Ali Barouti, but an edge of anger too especially when blowing off age-old protests that teen boys complain about how girls ‘moan about how men treat them like shit then ‘can’t help being attracted to bastards’’. Annoying as this is, Prebble uses its dramatic irony and allows Lewis some agency accelerating the outcome.
Loner Lewis is not up to Dani’s smart-talking shrug-off let alone answer her brittle snap-offs delivered equally to her mother who enquires genteely if Dani’s been to a rave, and had the people names: ‘most of them’ Dani’s blink-miss wit is one of the play’s glories. And her savage retorts to Lewis’ pathetic proto-incel comments about ‘skirt’ with a fairly unrepeatable riposte as to what strangers come up and tell her they can smell. Yet she guides and masturbates Lewis without pleasure, refusing mutuality yet, a cringe-fest of one-sided sex. Only later does she get sore too.
She’s vulnerable to what she confesses to Lewis. That ‘I like the internet…. a place where people are free to say anything they like. And most of what they say is about sex.’ With a high-flying father increasingly absent for what turn out the standard reasons, what Dani’s looking for is connection, and having started chatting to Tim, she finds it. Which is difficult, because first he thinks she’s an eleven-year-old boy, and second, he’s 33. ‘He’s really polite though’ Dani explains to a shocked Lewis.
John Hollingworth’s inscrutable-looking Tim Saunders used to teach classics, but he’s done a stretch and isn’t explicit about what he did with one David. He’s highly intelligent, talks crucially of love, is wholly respectful of Dani after his shock discovery, and she in turn is non-judgemental of his being as Lewis says a nonce.
Hollingworth’s superb at conveying Tim’s mix of ex-teacher admonitions about Dani’s attending school (‘college’ she twice corrects him testily) and more empathic disclosures, designed to engage Dani’s trust. But he shows too why we don’t learn everything directly. In the most intimate scene of all, we stare at Hollingworth’s raptly disengaged face. Jessica Rhodes’ Dani can’t see it.
Rhodes making her professional debut here is outstanding as the fragile bundle of confidence Dani is. She spikes out like some whirling molecule of hunger and need and – the disorder bolstered by her own Thinspirtion scrapbook – the need to expel all this in the face of everything. Which she almost does in one scene of bulimic barfing. It’s not simply Rhodes’ balletic energy, but the way she allows facial expression to register everything from self-disgust, eyebrow-raised boredom, annoyance, rapt enfolding trust and shuddering horror.
Alexandra Gilbreath too manages everything from clucking anxiety to bleak despair and wise, consolatory love – maybe the kind Dani needs but which neither have till now managed to negotiate. Some of the best scenes are between them. Whether it’s the uneasy one-sided wisecracking from Dani and Jan’s hurt, or Jan’s small harrowings, Gilbreath manages to convey a crumpling lessness that’s quite painful. She gets up her hopes on a new job – where one of Dani’s schoolmates might be a boss – then discovers something about her husband. Then as she relates this to Dani’s there’s a call she thinks is from someone other than who it is so we hear the message. Prebble does this again as Jan comforts Dani after Dani’s ruthless dismissal of the ever-stalking Lewis, and thinking it’s about Lewis that Dani shudders as she confronts the worst truth of all.
Costume supervisor Molly Syrett gives to Gilbreath’s character a dull dress interrupted just once by a dash of sporty flamboyance. Hollingworth’s ex teacher still dresses like a period throwback to his profession. The younger pair shrug post-hoodie.
This isn’t a plot-driven play – that would come – but one of unfolding. And there’s a sharp plot driver in that Lewis confronting first Tim then arriving at Dani’s house has set in motion Tim’s terror of discovery, which makes him ask something of Dani, with its own consequences.
It starkly contrasts with their last scenes together, where in a slow dance to Dylan Dani offers up a soaring trust. The dramatic and symbolically apt conclusion might shock some who prefer tasteful endings, but this drama still literally scorches its way back into the repertoire.
Prebble’s produced plays alternate intimate with vast scale, so perhaps another work like The Effect for instance, exploring the very nature of love, trust and what it means to be human might be next. Or same but epic. Who knows, but we need Prebble’s work regularly before us. This is a pitch-perfect revival. Even down to the dial-up screech.