Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), May 5 – Jun 3, 2018
Playwright: Alana Valentine
Director: Sarah Goodes
Cast: Sheridan Harbridge, Sacha Horler, Lex Marinos, Josh McConville, Kris McQuade, Nikki Shiels
Images by Brett Boardman
Narelle is the first of her family to go to university. Growing up under her grandmother June’s strict guidance, Narelle carries the hopes of generations of McCreadies, whose existences in Sydney have struggled persistently with poverty and criminality. In Alana Valentine’s The Sugar House, we observe the life story of one Sydneysider and her family, alternating between the years 1966, 1985 and 2007, watching the evolution of Narelle along with this city, forming an understanding of our own growth and gradual gentrification.
Our daily endurance of life in one of the world’s most expensive cities, can often delude us into believing only in its sophistication and varnished veneers. We try hard to forget its past, particularly in relation to invasions and genocide, as well as the deep seated impact of convict and refugee immigration. We imagine ourselves to be worldly and refined, and become precious in our embodiment of this glamoured image. In some ways, this is what June had always wanted for Narelle. Breaking the poverty cycle, might have meant for the matriarch, an end to suffering and injustice, but Narelle and our reality in Sydney today, has serious complications that she probably never foresaw.
The play is unmistakably sentimental, with sounds in its dialogue that are authentic and profoundly beautiful. The plot does meander slightly, but vivid personalities keep us attentive and intrigued. The Sugar House is passionately constructed, by playwright Valentine and director Sarah Goodes, who establish a soulfulness for the production that forms its irresistible allure. It talks about our community, the forgotten and hidden parts of it, with a refreshing honesty that many will find engaging. Narelle’s story is not all our stories, but no Sydneysider can escape the reverberations of her family’s experience.
Actor Sheridan Harbridge is a charming Narelle, persuasive at all ages but especially impressive with her sensitive portrayal of the 8 year-old version, impeccable in her presentation of a child full of intelligence and infectious life. June is played by the very compelling Kris McQuade, whose powerful combination of warmth and austerity, gives anchor, and accuracy, to a play concerned with history and accountability. Sacha Horler delivers a stunning performance in the supporting role of Margo, Narelle’s mother, depicting immense and glorious strength alongside the incessantly cruel torment she tolerates.
The stage is flanked on two sides by tall, mid-century windows (elegantly created by set designer Michael Hankin) demarcating a space that can be read either as glossy and new, or coarse and antiquated, depending on the scenes taking place before them. How we think of our city, should be similarly complex and heterogeneous. Our surface wishes to project a certain ideal, and that represents one truth of Sydney, which has emerged from our earnest aspirations, but layers beneath contain aspects that many have less pride for. Regrettable and shameful pasts make people rewrite histories. Lies can be used to mislead others, but the more that we try to deny ourselves the real stuff that we are made of, the more we will feel the emptiness in its place.