BWW REVIEW: The History, Hope And Human Relationships Of Sydney's Forgotten Battlers Plays Out In THE SUGAR HOUSE
Tuesday 15th May 2018, 6:30pm, Belvoir St Theatre
Alana Valentine's new play THE SUGAR HOUSE delves into Sydney's forgotten past with a powerful story of the pain and perseverance of three generations whose history is grounded in Pyrmont's history. Under Sarah Goodes' direction reality is woven with fiction as the Macreadie women struggle to escape their past whilst not losing sight of who they are as they seek recognition on personal and social levels in a world ready to erase evidence of the poor and underprivileged.
THE SUGAR HOUSE centres on the Macreadie family and their connection to the CSR Sugar refinery that dominated Pyrmont's industrial past. Commencing in the present era of the 21st century, the 49 year old Narelle Macreadie (Sheridan Harbridge) is inspecting a warehouse apartment in Jacksons Landing, a high end redevelopment of the former CSR Refinery when she convinces the snotty real estate agent Prin (Nikki Shiels) to let her linger in the apartment while Prin rushes off to another appointment. It is clear that the building holds memories for the distracted Narelle as the past comes to life and Narelle is transported back to 1966, visiting the refinery with her Poppa, Sidney Macreadie (Lex Marinos), a patient and caring grandfather who seeks to ensure peace at home, particularly avoiding upsetting Nanna, June Macreadie (Kris McQuade). The eight year old Narelle is close to her grandmother but has a fractured relationship with her mother Margo Macreadie (Sacha Horler), a bitter and angry woman on the verge of a divorce who also has a strained relationship with her own mother due to a prolonged resentment of apparent favouritism for her brother Ollie Macreadie (Josh McConville). Looking in on Narelle's life as she grows, the weight of June's dreams that her only grandchild be the one to escape the Macreadie past of poverty is clear whilst also providing an insight into life in Sydney for those at the bottom of society and a world ready to forget them.
Michael Hankin draws on archive images of the CSR Refinery to present an empty factory space complete with barred windows, exposed beams and painted concrete floor. Minimal set dressing of a table on casters, simple chairs and folding beds help transform the space into June and Sidney's John Street workers' cottage home and the other places from Narelle's past. Emma Vine's costuming provides a more definitive expression of the eras, particularly through Jenny, Ollie's girlfriend and later wife. Given the story centres on Narelle's memories, Vine has kept the costume constant but changes of shoes, removal of jackets and jewellery and placement of hairpins helps transport her through the different stages in her life and history. Damien Cooper's lighting helps shift between the present and the past and the various locations of the Macreadie family's collective past, from a dingy cottage to police station and the NSW Attorney General's office to the sugar refinery, past and present.
Whilst predominantly a dialogue driven work, Michael Toisuta's sound design and Steve Francis' compositions help move the story along whilst incorporating elements of the traditions of songs passed from generations to amuse children and mourn the dead. With links to Poppa's story of inadvertently attracting bees with the sweet smell from the sugar, Francis' adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's The Bee Boy's Song is used to entertain young Narelle with an easy tune. The ensemble also presents Valentine's lyrics for a haunting, mournful ritualistic song of death, again set to Francis' music. Both songs are beautifully rendered by group, led by Harbridge who has a strong musical background.
Primarily presenting Sidney, Lex Marinos takes on the bulk of the minor characters as well as the compassionate patriarch. As Sidney, Marinos ensures that the strength of the bond between grandfather and granddaughter is evident whilst also reinforcing his desire to keep his wife happy and pacified in the face of the controversial sentencing of real figure Ronald Ryan. Marinos ensures that the minor roles that he covers, from crooked cop to ineffective Member of Parliament and the representation of real character Justice Terry Sheahan, are presented with enough depth to ensure that, with minor costume changes, it is clear who they are. As petty criminal Ollie, Josh McConville is seen as both protective of his niece and his mother whilst also conveying that he isn't the sharpest tool in the shed. He ensures that Ollie is seen as a likable character that has just made some bad choices, in contrast to his bitter sister. As Ollie's girlfriend Jenny, Nikki Shiels adds the element of glamour to the work whilst still ensuring that the leggy redhead isn't seen as a ditz, as it seems Ollie's other 'girlfriends' might have been, but rather someone with the strength to stand up to June's judgement as she grows to care for both Ollie and Narelle.
As matriarch June, Kris McQuade presents the role with the requisite degree of authority and weight to ensure that she is both feared and respected by the family. McQuade ensures that June is seen as a formidable woman who doesn't necessarily know how to show affection to the whole of her clan, but desperately wants to protect them. She captures the generational trend to mothers being firm with their direct offspring as she challenges Margo but is caring towards Narelle who she sees as the families hope for the future as she tries to protect the child. Sheridan Harbridge ensures that Narelle is seen as having a similar tenacity to her grandmother but little in common with her own mother Margo. Both June and Narelle follow their beliefs with a dogged focus but June is the anchor of the family. Whilst Harbridge is well known for her comic roles, particularly in musical theatre, she shines in the more serious role and she is able to transition between the innocence of the 8 year old, the cockiness of the 27 year old and the world weary and grieving 49 year old, with a wonderful ease. She gives the inquisitive wide eyed younger Narelle a maturity as the children of her generation were more likely to be exposed to more worldly concerns than the cushioning and mollycoddling of the modern generation. Of the three generations of women, the weakest is Margo. Whilst Horler has been given a somewhat limited scope to make Margo likable she keeps Narelle's mother as a constantly angry and resentful with no real moments of compassion to anyone. Any pity that could have been garnered for Margo have been relinquished in favour of keeping her at a continuous tone but she does hold one of the keys in the story with a moving monologue regarding the fate of the poor to be forgotten as the city changes and erases its past.
Regardless of whether you are familiar with Sydney's past or not, THE SUGAR HOUSE is an interesting and important work as it explores the stories of the people that are usually erased from the history books and the landscape. As the Sugar refinery made way for posh housing with only token reminders of the past which people don't really understand, stories of families like the Macreadie's would normally be forgotten as well. THE SUGAR HOUSE gives them a voice and shares the challenges of growing up in poverty, the changes a family can make in a few generations, and the burden on history on the future. A wonderfully presented new Australian story that should be seen.
5 May - 3 June 2018
Upstairs Theatre Belvoir St Theatre