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The Sugar House

"very much an ensemble effort"

Audrey review: Alana Valentine weaves a female-dominated family saga replete with heart-on-sleeve emotion and salt-of-the-earth values.

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Company: Belvoir
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The Sugar House

Date: 12 May 2018

Now that working class people have been largely excised from the inner suburbs of Sydney, what, asks playwright Alana Valentine, do we owe them for their role in shaping this global city of ours?

Anything more than a brass plaque on a block of new apartments?

The Sugar House opens in 2007, in an upmarket residential development on the site of the former Colonial Sugar Refinery, the pumping heart of Pyrmont for the better part of a century until it closed in 1995.

A lawyer, Narelle (Sheridan Harbridge) is inspecting the property but has more than a mortgage on her mind. After a testy exchange with the real estate agent, she’s enveloped in a cloud of steam.

Dodgy central heating? No, it’s a flashback, one that returns Narelle to the Pyrmont of her childhood and into the bosom of her hardscrabble family: matriarch June (Kris McQuade); grandad Sidney (Lex Marinos); mum Margo (Sacha Horler), and knockabout uncle Ollie (Josh McConville).

Narelle is eight years old. It’s 1967, days prior to the execution of Ronald Ryan, an event casting a pall over the family and galvanising a collective sense of antagonism toward the ruling class and their henchmen.

Valentine weaves themes of class, injustice, “bad blood” and intergenerational tension into a female-dominated family saga replete with warm humour, heart-on-sleeve emotion and salt-of-the-earth values.

Her portrait of working class life has a touch of rosy to it but Valentine captures its less laudable aspects, too: the harshness of judgement; the antipathy toward those perceived to be rising above their station.

Occasional billboarding of the play’s underlying themes makes The Sugar House seem ponderous at times, however, and molasses-as-metaphor is too sticky to be really effective.

Directed by Sarah Goodes on a post-industrially elegant, high-windowed set designed by Michael Hankin (powerfully lit by Damien Cooper), this is very much an ensemble effort, with everyone chipping in to shove furniture around between scenes.

Harbridge has the difficult job to do in playing Narelle at different ages (child, bolshie student, 40-something lawyer) but captures each with wit and skill.

McQuade brings grit and gravitas to the role of June (Valentine wrote it with her in mind), though on this occasion there were moments when her grip on the material wasn’t as strong as it needs to be.

Horler cuts through as the bitter Margo and McConville has the ability to take full advantage of the behavioural range Valentine has built into the role of Ollie. He also lights up a pungent little scene between Narelle and a pinched little bloke tattooing a picture of sugar cubes on her behind.

Nikki Shiels is particularly good in the first half as Jenny, Ollie’s vivacious girlfriend, a role that continues after interval but fades to nothing. She’s deftly funny as Prin, the real estate agent for whom Pyrmont’s working class history is nothing more than a selling point.

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