The Sugar House theatre review (Belvoir, Sydney)

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The Sugar House is about gentrification. Of suburbs, and particularly of families.

Alana Valentine’s cross-generational epic is close to the heart of this theatre. It’s set in harbourside Pyrmont, which could just as well be on the other side of the city in Surry Hills, where Belvoir’s de-industrialised suburban home sits, or any inner-city suburb in Melbourne or Brisbane or elsewhere. They’re suburbs that have uneasily retired industry to move in working-class families and, now, more affluent hipsters in renovated factory apartments. Where physical history is bulldozed but ghosts of generations past remain.

The play opens on one of those apartments; a converted CSR sugar factory, with its exposed brick walls and supporting beams and multi-paned windows (Michael Hankin designed the enveloping but flexible set). Narelle (Sheridan Harbridge) is an interested buyer, or at least someone with a clear attachment to the property. Real estate agent Prin (Nikki Shiels) is growing impatient for a sale.

Then time spins wildly backwards. It’s 1966 and sugar production is in full swing. Narelle is eight. Her Poppa, Sid (Lex Marinos), a factory worker, is explaining how the machinery works. How dirt and impurities are removed to create something purely sweet. She reads the paper to Poppa; Ronald Ryan is on the front page pleading for his life. We know now he was the last man to be executed in Australia, but back then it was a fate that families mixed up in crime feared.

The Sugar House is a little bit Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) and a little bit Lorca Garcia (Blood Wedding) with lashings of pioneering Australiana.

Back home, the matriarch broods. Life has been hard for Nanna, June (Kris McQuade), and she wants so much more for the next generations. But her son Ollie (Josh McConville) gets mixed up with the wrong women, like current squeeze Jenny (Shiels), and the wrong crowds of Pyrmont. Ruth’s worry for him doesn’t leave much empathy left for her daughter, Margot (Sacha Horler), who’s taken Narelle and fled from a violent husband.

Now they’re all rattling around a suffocating cottage with their past traumas, wounded souls and untellable secrets, hemorrhaging what Nan calls “bad blood”. The genetic millstone drags them down into the muck while Nan fights tooth and nail to boost her son and granddaughter up.

It’s a little bit Letts (Tracy, and his superb 2007 play August: Osage County) and a little bit Lorca (Garcia, his 1932 Spanish classic Blood Wedding) with lashings of pioneering Australiana. Valentine revives a near-dead language of okkerism with nostalgic, often funny flair. (My favourite line? “Wouldn’t know how to run a choko vine over an outdoor shithouse.”) And director Sarah Goodes, who just got done with another suburban nightmare in The Children, mixes the gothic and melodramatic with humour and heart.

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She also navigates the shifts in place and time seamlessly over the course of a bum-numbing near-three-hour run, from the home to the factory to hospitals and cop shops with just a few pieces of wheeled-in furniture. It’s a carefully calibrated performance from one of the country’s finest directors.

In act two, we’re transported two decades to the mid -’80s, with its unmistakable fashion (smartly costume designed by Emma Vine), where Narelle is a headstrong law student torn between anarchic protests and Nanna’s hopes for a professional career. Maybe she can fix things from the inside, outrun the family name and avenge its demons.

The ensemble is quite extraordinary, if in need of more performances to iron out some stumbles. Sheridan Harbridge is believable as a precocious eight-year-old, a rebellious 20-something and a tired, haunted lawyer on the other side of 40. There’s finely-tuned, well-wrought work, too, from Josh McConville and particularly Sacha Horler, who bring pathos with great nuance. The always great Nikki Shiels makes full use of small moments. Lex Marinos, an Australian entertainment icon really, has a lovely presence as granddad but doesn’t really modulate his performance for the multiple other roles he’s required to play which does jar.

June, though, is at the black heart of the family and the heart of the play. She is written and played as broadly as the proverbial barn, which could be caricature if we hadn’t all had these war-torn, tough old broads in our lives. It’s an authentic portrait from the terrific Kris McQuade, who’s made a solid career out of playing them. But her anxieties don’t always feel completely authentic. We hear and see some of the ghosts but there’s the sense there’s so many more, which can alienate rather than intrigue.

In bounding between generations, excavating class and aspiration across multiple eras, sketching relationships through time with characters on stage and off, I walked away feeling like maybe Valentine hadn’t quite joined all the dots. I walked away, too, with a greater appreciation for this team of artists, particularly Valentine and Goodes who could grow a choko vine over almost anything.

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The Sugar House plays Belvoir St Theatre until June 3. Photo by Brett Boardman of: L-R: Kris McQuade, Lex Marinos, Josh McConville, Sheridan Harbridge, Sacha Horler, Nikki Shiels.

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