cw// discussion of child sexual abuse and anorexia
First debuted at the Royal Court Upstairs in 2003, Lucy Prebble’s first play feels like one of those early Dominic Cooke-era plays – the ones I read and saw when I was first getting into theatre – ones which lobbed the political and the personal together and watched the fissures spread. Dani (Jessica Rhodes), a precocious 17-year-old girl who struggles with an eating disorder, meets Tim (John Hollingworth), a convicted paedophile on a chatroom after she poses as an 11-year-old boy. An unlikely bond forms – they attempt to tesselate, to use each other as therapy for various urges and personal problems – from Dani’s proto-incel fuck buddy Lewis (all wide-eyed conviction from Ali Barouti) to her lonely, reticent mother (Alexandra Gilbreath).
It’s not really about the internet – ostensibly, sure, with a few scenes taking place in shady early noughties chatrooms, but really, the internet is just a jumping off point for Prebble to write about actual, tangible, flesh and blood connection. It’s not about the internet in the way that a play written now would be about the internet. The internet in The Sugar Syndrome isn’t (yet) some all-encompassing, porous and feral beast (designer Rebecca Brower draws an initially severe line between the “online” and “offline” worlds, characters hopping between them with apparent ease), the kind depicted last year in Jasmine Lee-Jones’ seven methods of killing kylie jenner – there’s something far more tentative about it, with characters creeping around the edges of Brower’s sunken design, lit ghoulishly by flickering indigo LEDs, all peering into an intriguing void and hoping to come out intact on the other side.
The Sugar Syndrome is essentially a period piece – full of small references to Nokias and the World Cup and S Club 7. And listen, I know you don’t want to think about the noughties as history but let’s get real, 2003 was 17 years ago and it’s time to get over it; life is long and we’re all going to die. The world it invokes feels, at times, utterly alien. Time moves differently when the internet is involved – 17 years feels more like 50. But director Oscar Toeman and designer Rebecca Brower pull back from fully engaging with period implications – and as a result, the production can feel oddly adrift, floating in some kind of timeless vacuum.
What remains strongest is the meat of the interpersonal relationships – particularly between Dani and her mother, inarguably the beating heart of the piece, with Rhodes’s acidic Dani corroding away Gilbreath’s wiry, bemused Jan. And the relationship between Dani and Tim (Hollingworth all shabby, ambiguous charm), while it does stretch credibility at times (it’s deeply wince-inducing to hear an eating disorder being compared to paedophilic urges), still has this gently magic quality to it. There is something strange and winding and fantastical about the odd-couple friendship – in many ways, it’s utterly idealistic, in the way that only a 17-year-old girl could imagine. The Sugar Syndrome is a wonky piece, and almost immediately recognisable as a debut play, and yet there is a startling sense of ambition and scope in how Prebble revels in the unsolvable murkiness of her characters. They all speak with such alarming and often wonderful emotional clarity, even when they’re swamped in muddied moral waters. “I’m around you and I feel like I’ve had a layer of skin removed,” Dani snaps at her mother, a line so full of precise cruelty that it takes my breath away.
There is, however, one moment towards the end of the production which felt egregious. Dani, having been convinced to take care of Tim’s laptop by him, sits alone in her room and searches through it. Then, the sound of a violent sexual assault on a child plays. Horrified, she listens, then slams the laptop shut. I’ve circled around this moment for a few days, trying to figure out exactly what it was that felt so jarring (apart from the fact that, obviously, it is deeply upsetting). I don’t doubt that this decision was made with utmost care by the creative team, and yet that does very little to assuage my unease. Dramaturgically, it makes sense – it brings home to both Dani and the audience the stark reality of Tim – and yes, it is written into the script. Is that a good enough reason? I don’t think so, honestly. If you absolutely must put the sounds of a violent sexual assault onstage, then I’d want to know that it was the last possible resort – that there was literally no other option that could work. Personally, I don’t believe that that is the case. In theatre, there is always another choice.
Following on from that scene, there is an FKA twigs needle drop – her song, “Cellophane” plays as Dani sets fire to her sickly pink “Thinspiration” scrapbook and destroys Tim’s laptop with a glass of orange squash. It’s difficult to express just how emotive twigs’ song is, so I’ll leave a link to it here if you haven’t heard it. It’s a great choice of song – but it allows catharsis to come easily. Too easily. It is such a striking theatrical moment, with smoke billowing into the ceiling of the Orange Tree as twigs’ voice cracks and the flame licks up at Rhodes’s painfully evocative face, and yet I found that it smoothed out all the edges of this stubbornly spiky play. Following on from that audio clip – well, it felt a little manipulative. A theatrical trick, beautifully choreographed – but overly calibrated. A sugary surface, but with an achingly bitter aftertaste.
The Sugar Syndrome is on at Orange Tree Theatre till 22nd February. More info here.