Left – Kris McQuade. Photo – Daniel Boud
The Sugar House by Alana Valentine is an extraordinary new play which takes us on a family saga across three generations of Pyrmont residents. This very personal story broadens to encompass the history of Sydney’s perpetual gentrification, not only via the redevelopment of slums and industrial architecture into affluent suburbs, but also in terms of the local people themselves. It speaks to class mobility, those who desire to raise up their offspring out of impoverishment with education and white collar work. It is a gift that is not always rooted entirely in generosity, nor is it always graciously received.
This family narrative is set across three different time periods, two of which occur in a progression, with a present day framing device wrapping around each act. The play begins with a woman taking an open-house inspection of a former Pyrmont sugar refinery that has been converted into luxury apartments, and despite the impatience of the real estate agent that it is against the rules, she insists on staying behind alone. In fact she sleeps overnight on the floor of the empty loft, and clearly the woman has a deep personal connection to this place.
We then flash back to the late 1960s, in which this woman was an eight-year-old girl named Narelle, living in a lower working class Pyrmont family ruled by her tough as nails grandmother June. Kindly grandfather Sidney sometimes takes her to work with him at the nearby sugar refinery that will one day become upmarket housing. But back in the ‘60s, this was a life of hard graft and grinding poverty, with Narelle being largely taken care of by her grandparents, while her self-sabotaging mother Margot is embroiled in splitting up with her abusive husband.
Maternal affection seems to have skipped a generation, with no love lost between Margot and Grandma June, in no small part due to the latter’s favouritism towards her son Ollie, apparently the apple of their mother’s eye. Unfortunately Narelle’s Uncle Ollie is a bit of a scallywag, having narrowly escaped the cops while in possession of some stolen goods. Hijinks with his new girlfriend Jenny mask some more serious issues at play, however, which Granny June is quick to pick up on and obsessively worry over. It emerges that June has a deep-seated fear of the corrupt local constabulary, whom she has good reason to believe holds a vendetta against her family, stemming from a life with criminal siblings she has tried to move beyond. Strife and heartbreak are not far behind.
When the action jumps forward to mid-1980s, the troubled side of the sweet, intelligent girl Narelle had been, sensitive to the family dramas unfolding around her, has grown up into a deeply conflicted and rebellious young woman, chafing against a burgeoning career as a lawyer, foist upon her by the desperation of her grandmother to better herself and escape crushing poverty. Grandma June is of the bleak worldview that being poor is a curse, especially when surrounded by bent cops, informants and criminals who will all hold a grudge and quickly cast down anyone vulnerable in their orbits.
Unfortunately at 26, Narelle is at uni and full of piss, vinegar, and burning class resentment towards fellow students in the same political action groups, from North Shore backgrounds who have never had to struggle. As time has gone on, she and June have become two sides of the same coin, raging against the vicissitudes of the justice system that destroys the lives of the underprivileged. While her grandmother has gone to work for the NSW Attorney General in the hopes of getting the last few obscure laws carrying a death sentence off the books, Narelle approaches the inequity of how the system treats the poor by protesting against deaths in custody.
The battlefield is set over whether Narelle will chuck in the law degree she feels she was pressured onto by her grandmother, or if the risk of her getting a criminal record from being arrested by overzealous cops at protests rallies would effectively bar her from passing the bar anyway. Either outcome would be calamitous in June’s eyes, to such an extent that the mere prospect of her finding this out sends her uncle into a violent rage, in a quite chilling scene of unexpected domestic abuse.
These are complicated characters, at once unlikable and charming, repellent, kind, cold, randy and cruel often in almost the same breath. A lot of what happens in the play comes about as much through interpersonal dynamics as from the fear of predation by corrupt external forces. Indeed, fear and resentment are very much the primary emotions that are the heartbeat of this very striking drama. Alana Valentine’s text is incisive in its character studies and measured in its expression of them, in many places strikingly beautiful and tugging at the heartstrings with unexpected power. Her dialogue is also striking, with disarming bon mots like “Well, of course – is there cold shit in a dead cat?”, in contrast to some quite poetic passages, to the extent that, at times, the lyricism of Valentine’s dialogue feels potentially inauthentic for these salt-of-the-earth characters.
However, the slower, contemplative pace of the drama is deeply engrossing, and the playwright’s nuanced, all-too-human characters ring devastatingly true. This is rich stuff, dealing with the story of Sydney’s now increasingly displaced working class, and its history of endemic urban crime and police corruption. It tells of how our city has sought to reinvent itself and reclaim areas of poverty and industry with almost a fetish for superficial “authenticity” for our rough-and-tumble past, rendered anodyne for expensive tastes. This element is embodied in the character of Prin, the vapid, incurious know-nothing young real estate agent in the framing device, who treats the local history which Narelle lived like some faintly boring tourist trivia.
As strong as this excellent new playscript is, it is enhanced many times over by the sensationally good performances from its extremely strong cast. Headed by national treasure Kris McQuade as Grandma June, I would hardly be the first critic to laud the amazing gift of her voice with hyperbolic metaphors of smoke, whiskey, broken glass or gravel, but that extraordinary timbre-crackling-on-the-fire voice is but one of the many tools in her striking performative arsenal. It comes all the more to the fore with a certain pleasing continuity in the somewhat similarly raspy, world-weary voice of Sheridan Harbridge as her granddaughter Narelle.
These two are the major central figures of the play, forming quite a devastating double act, at times tender while at others fractious over the course of their complex relationship. McQuade is acerbically funny and more than a little scary as June. Her performance is filled with power and pathos as the one constant in this changing landscape, seemingly always old yet never aging. By contrast Harbridge portrays Narelle from 8 to almost 60 over the course of the play, successfully conveying not only this extreme range in age but also the character’s significant arc of development, over the ups and downs of her sense of personal self-worth, happiness and raging against the machine and family alike.
Lex Marinos is charming as her grandfather and several other doubled roles, while Nikki Shiels is also very strong as her Uncle’s partner Jenny, who over the decades develops into probably Narelle’s warmest and least complicated familial relationship, while also doubling as the excruciatingly ignorant Prin. Mother Margot is the broken link in the generational chain, a somewhat thankless role, filled with resentment, dissatisfaction and little respite from unhappiness, carried with customary aplomb and dramatic weight by the inimitable Sacha Horler.
Finally, special notice must go to Josh McConville, primarily as Narelle’s uncle Ollie. Possibly even more so than Narelle, his character goes through significant shifts in maturity and behaviour as his circumstances change across the decades, such that his minimal doubling of roles seems potentially confusing. However, the framing device seems to be designed to perhaps intentionally misdirect the audience as to the status of some of the characters in the present day, in a way which ultimately has a very satisfying dramatic payoff. Regardless of the role, McConville is truly excellent and has some moments which are both genuinely terrifying and simultaneously heartbreaking, dripping bitter human truth.
The Sugar House is a fantastic new play, ideally suited to Belvoir, and indeed, there is no small irony with a former tomato sauce factory turned theatre presenting a play in which the set is a former refinery turned apartment. While the pace and tone of the story may be a little contemplative for some, any patrons expecting this epic kitchen sink drama to have more conventionally high-stakes theatrical fireworks would likely be missing the point. This captivating narrative has huge emotional impact for those willing to take it on its own terms, visibly bringing tears to the eyes of many in the audience at several stages. Most of all though, it is both a timely and timeless encapsulation of what is one of the great Sydney stories, the implacable, merciless march of urban gentrification, a tale told in bricks and lives, blood and mortar.
The Sugar House
by Alana Valentine
Director Sarah Goodes
Venue: Belvoir Street Theatre | Belvoir St Surry Hills NSW
Dates: 5 May - 3 June 2018
Tickets: $37 – $72