The Sugar Syndrome (Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond)

Posted: January 29, 2020 in Theatre

Writer: Lucy Prebble      Director: Oscar Toeman


Most plays tend to lose relevance with the passing of time, but exactly the opposite is the case with Lucy Prebble’s early success, first seen at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2003. The Sugar Syndrome looks at random dating from the perspective of a time when internet connections were dial-up, social media was still to emerge and the term “grooming” was most commonly associated with horses, but the writer foresees the dangers that lie ahead with remarkable prescience.

Prebble was just 22-years old when the play premiered. Its central character, Dani, is 17, suffering from an eating disorder and regularly skipping sixth form college. Jessica Rhodes is utterly convincing in the role, capturing the playfulness of a teenager getting her first glimpses of the sinister side of the adult world. She puts on the air of a girl who knows a lot more than she should and matches it with the anxiety of a girl who knows very little at all.

Dani’s first encounter in an internet chatroom is with Lewis (Ali Barouti), a cocky 22-year-old who she meets and treats as if he is a sex toy. Pushing a little further, she then pretends to be an 11-year-old boy and makes contact with an older man, Tim, a paedophile who has served time in prison for a violent act of self-defence. John Hollingworth gives Tim a haunted look which suggests the inner emptiness of a man who can never do more than suppress his base instincts and never find acceptance for his true self.

The dynamics of this odd friendship become Prebble’s primary interest. Dani’s mother, Jan (Alexandra Gilbreath) is in denial about her failed marriage and too preoccupied with learning Pilates for a receptionist job at the local gym to give her daughter the attention which she craves. So Dani turns to Tim and both take on the role of counsellor to the other, providing reassurance and coaching to resist their different temptations.

Prebble’s writing is stark and provocative, but the dark humour which was to characterise her later works, such as Enron and A Very Expensive Poison, is evident throughout. Director Oscar Toeman balances the play’s tenderness and cynicism assuredly, maintaining tension, while confining the action to a tight square, which designer Rebecca Brower surrounds with strips of blue lighting. This is a play which recognises boundaries and pushes hard against them.

Well chosen music tracks also make their mark. Poignantly, Bob Dylan sings Simple Twist of Fate while Dani and Tim dance together in a close embrace, both seeking personal validation, both anticipating rejection. Toeman’s revival never loosens its powerful grip and, quite deliberately, leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

Performance date: 28 January 2020

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