‘The Sugar House’ receives its first production outside of Australia after being nominated for ‘Best New Australian Work in the Sydney Theatre Awards after a showing at the Belvoir Street Theatre in 2018. The Finborough Theatre is renowned for breathing new life into old rarely performed plays or helping new writers to establish themselves.
Alana Valentine has written a very powerful, thought-provoking play set in three different time periods. It begins in 2007, with Narelle Macreadie (Jessica Zerlina Leafe) looking around a posh flat in Sydney which was situated in a converted sugar factory. It becomes clear that this building stimulates old memories, and she begins to reminisce about her childhood, spending time with her father Sidney Macreadie (Patrick Toomey) who worked at the factory.
We move back to 1967, Narelle is 8 years old and lives with her grandfather and grandmother, as her mother has recently split up with Narelle’s father. Narelle’s uncle Ollie (Adam Fitzgerald) is in trouble with the Police, and it is clear from June Macreadie’s (Janine Ulfane) reaction, that there is more to this than meets the eye.
This examination of how generations influence their offspring into thinking and acting a certain way, takes Australian history combined with the British history of convicts being shipped to Australia and asks the question, once a family is tainted, does that mean that the bad blood is passed down the generations? The historical context revolves around the justice system, and the last hanging in Australia of Ronald Ryan, who was found convicted of murder and sentenced to death, the sentence was carried out in 1967.
Using historical figures and writing a story about a family’s experiences of poverty and survival during times when ‘being poor is the same thing as being guilty’, as Sidney Macreadie (Toomey) exclaims, we see the strength of June Macreadie as she is determined that her family will not be dragged down by their past. Janine Ulfane superbly demonstrates the power of a mother and grandmother who can see how life might be for her children if she doesn’t use her strength and determination to ensure they don’t allow poverty to dictate their future. Backed up by her sometimes exasperated husband (Toomey), June encourages her granddaughter Narelle (Leafe), to study and to graduate from law school. Narelle’s feisty nature soon rebels against what she perceives as an unjust law system and begins to protest. Leafe captures the spirit of Narelle whose genes carry her grandmother’s fiery nature, but her grandmother encourages her to put her fight into legal battles, rather than continue the family’s brushes with the law.
Through the whole of the play, we see the usual high standard of production values (managed by James Anderton) that are always evident at the Finborough, from the fight scenes co-ordinated by Keith Wallis, to the lighting (Sherry Coenen), costume (Imogen Brown) and sound design (Ellie Showering). Navigating this play in a small intimate space is ably done by director Tom Brennan who limits props to a minimum and allows the script and superb performances to take centre stage.
At over two hours in length, this is not your usual fringe theatre one act play, but there is a lot of ground to cover, and the excellent writing keeps the mind busy. All the cast deserved their round of applause, with superb performances given by everyone.
‘The Sugar House’ runs until the 20th of November at the Finborough Theatre and tickets can be purchased at – https://finboroughtheatre.co.uk/production/the-sugar-house/
Reviewer: Caroline Worswick
Reviewed: 4th November 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★