In 2017, Australian writer Alana Valentine won critical acclaim for the world premiere production of her new work Barbara and the Camp Dogs, staged by Belvoir. Six months later, Belvoir is hosting the premiere of Valentine’s latest play, The Sugar House, directed by current MTC associate director Sarah Goodes.
The Sugar House is at once a multi-generational family story and a tale of a city in transformation. Narelle Macreadie (Sheridan Harbridge) returns to Pyrmont in Sydney’s inner-city, which was once industrial and the home of the working class, including her grandparents, June (Kris McQuade) and Sidney (Lex Marinos). Narelle inspects a spacious upmarket apartment that sits on the site once occupied by the sugar refinery in which her grandfather worked.
We’re taken back to 1966 and into the Macreadie home and discover that June is a tough matriarch who’s desperate to ensure her son, Ollie (Josh McConville) avoids trouble with the law while harbouring a secret about her own family’s past. When her daughter, Margo (Sacha Horler), arrives with eight-year-old Narelle to lament about her marital crisis, June won’t have a bar of it – specifically, when Margo asks her if she should just be unhappy, June’s response is, “You should be filthy bloody miserable and you should get used to it because that is what life is.”
As the story unfolds, we witness Ollie’s imprisonment, June’s employment in the NSW Attorney General’s office motivated by a determination to see capital punishment completely excised from the law, and conflict between grandmother, mother and daughter. Valentine’s text conjures a Sydney we all know and have known – a city that’s pushed the working class further and further to its fringes to make way for gentrification. As well as highlighting the demarcation between the Sydney of then and now, The Sugar House is also at its core about shame passed down through generations, complicated family dynamics and the need we often feel to understand the past and where we came from, in order to gain some authentic sense of identity.
This is a wonderful, thoughtfully-constructed and distinctly Australian work that Goodes has beautifully realised in this world premiere production. Each character rings true to life; the issues with which they grapple are real, and the impact they have on those who come after is undeniable. There’s an exchange between Margo and June in the second act that’s slightly off the mark – while Margo’s articulation of the impact of classism is on point, the choice of language here is arguably at odds with the Margo we have heard. However, that’s a minor criticism of a piece otherwise consistent in believably speaking the narrative.
Michael Hankin’s expansive set is the perfect backdrop for each guise it takes on, while Emma Vine’s costuming choices, so totally reflective of time and place, evidence her high attention to detail. Damien Cooper’s lighting is integral in the effective movement of the piece from the 1960s right through to contemporary times, and Steve Francis’ atmospheric and suitably sweet compositions underscore scene transitions beautifully.
Leading the cast, McQuade delivers a first-rate performance as June, giving the character the tough and flinty personality that is demanded by the text, but similarly managing to convey a woman who cares deeply for her family – even though she’s patently unable to show it to most. Harbridge’s portrayal of Narelle is perhaps her finest performance on Sydney stages to date. Tasked with playing a young child, then a recalcitrant twenty-something university student and, finally, a woman of 40, she is utterly convincing each step of the way. Her struggle with her identity in the play’s final minutes feels like a credible reconciliation with the events we see throughout the show. As her mother, Margo, Horler is similarly superb, achingly hard and sad as the daughter who never felt the love she needed.
Nikki Shiels makes the most of her time on stage as Ollie’s wife, Jenny, and her portrayal of supercilious real estate agent Prin results in some much-appreciated comedic relief towards the end of the second act. McConville is strong and anchoring in bringing us Narelle’s injudicious uncle, Ollie, while Marinos’ support in a variety of roles is commendable.
Ultimately, The Sugar House reminds us that revisiting the past can be joyful, it can be painful, it can be cathartic, or even all three. Sometimes, moving forward with a true sense of self means looking back to understand where you’ve come from and what you’ve become. Valentine equally reminds us of Sydney’s journey and all of the people who have been crucial in shaping its identity, particularly those that have been discarded as the detritus of progress.
THE SUGAR HOUSE – SEASON DETAILS
Dates: Playing now until 3 June, 2018
Venue: Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir (25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills)
Tickets: belvoir.com.au or by phone on 02 9699 3444