Review: SUGAR COAT, Southwark Playhouse

A riotous piece of gig theatre

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That exciting thing is Sugar Coat - a piece of gig theatre, telling a story of growing up, trauma, and sex through pop punk music. A kind of rock concert meets musical, it's performed by an all female and non-binary band, playing and singing live for the duration of the show. From the very beginning, this doesn't feel like a traditional theatre experience: the audience are whooping and clapping along, and it's clear that everyone both on stage and off is having a great time.

Most simply, Sugar Coat is the story of a girl, spanning eight years. We follow her from her first secondary school boyfriend, an academic rival in Geography class, through university, to a grad job and a flat of her own. The story is laced with nostalgic detail - a comedic highlight of the show is when we meet the main character's uni flatmates, the 'posh boy', the 'politically active lad', the 'lovely lesbian', and the 'like-minded girl', and are transported to a freshers' house party.

But alongside the fun nostalgia are a lot of heavier themes. Without wanting to spoil the plot, Sugar Coat deals with miscarriage and rape, among other topics. It's a no-holds-barred candid account of the trauma of womanhood. There are moments that are really tricky to watch and, as the title would suggest, nothing is sugar-coated.

Music is such an integral part of Sugar Coat. Pop punk is the perfect medium to tell a story of female sexuality and female pain, with co-writers Joel Samuels and Lilly Pollard taking inspiration from 'riot grrrl' bands like Bikini Kill and Letters to Cleo. The songs allow the emotions in the story to break out of a traditional narrative structure, making the highs higher and the lows more devastating. This love for female punk is also woven into the script, a key facet of the main character's identity, as she starts a band with her friends and hears the music playing at parties. Sugar Coat is a show that really knows what it wants to be.

Pulling off a piece of gig theatre that still effectively tells a story isn't easy. Director Celine Lowenthal makes the storytelling slick and smart, with clever use of the aisle and of a lack of physical contact helping the show come across both as funny and as affecting as possible.

Set Designer Ruth Badila creates a fantastically detailed teen-bedroom-meets-concert-stage, while lighting designer Martha Godfrey smoothly takes us from quiet moments of grief to wild house parties and rocking musical numbers. A light up 'Sugar Coat' sign gives the stage a fun pop, changing colour as the scenes change.

As the lead vocalist and main character, Dani Heron is every inch the riot grrrl frontwoman. Powerful vocals balanced with emotional vulnerability create a winning performance. The rest of the cast all play a range of characters, each having their moment to shine. Drummer Sarah Workman is brilliant as awkward teen boyfriend Dean, while bassist Rachel Barnes brings a sly smile to her roles as the mum, the lesbian flatmate, and a therapist.

Recent grad and rhythm guitarist Eve de Leon Allen becomes an eventual love interest with charm and sweet vocals, while co-musical director and lead guitarist Anya Pearson effortlessly shapeshifts between a geeky flatmate and an unexpected boyfriend - it's hard to believe this is Pearson's acting debut!

There are some minor issues with the show: some of the lyrics get lost among the noise, especially in Heron's songs nearer the beginning, which is a shame, and a couple of the side characters could be more fleshed out. However, the show's punk rock atmosphere makes these issues very easy to overlook.

Sugar Coat was originally performed at VAULT Festival three years ago - following the recent news that the festival has lost its venue, this show is a real testament to the kind of work it cultivates and further proof of its importance to the UK theatre scene.

In her director's notes, Celine Lowenthal writes that she wants audiences to have a 'raucous, riotous time', and that aim was absolutely achieved. Sugar Coat is an electric night out - it's sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll, but it's also so much more. It's the kind of work that makes me excited about new British theatre.

Sugar Coat runs at Southwark Playhouse (Borough) until 22 April

Photo Credit: Ali Wright


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