‘The Sugar Syndrome’ review

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
The Sugar Syndrome, Orange Tree Theatre, 2020
Photograph: Richard Davenport

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

A great turn from newcomer Jessica Rhodes adds some spark to the first ever revival for Lucy Prebble’s of-its-time debut

Considering her stature as a playwright, and the fact she’s actually only written four plays, it’s kind of surprising that Lucy Prebble’s debut ‘The Sugar Syndrome’ remains virtually unknown.

Things are a little clearer when you see it, though, in its first ever revival. Originally staged in October 2003 at the Royal Court, just a couple of months after MySpace launched – and years before Facebook and Twitter came along – ‘The Sugar Syndrome’ is a drama rooted in a fleeting, pre-social media, pre-web 2.0 age. A time when young people still had stacks of NMEs mouldering away in their bedrooms but were also becoming the first digital natives, racking up hefty bills on their parents’ phone lines as they used dial-up modems to converse with strangers in anonymous chatrooms.

It’s in a chatroom that Dani (Jessica Rhodes), a precocious 17-year-old grappling with an eating disorder and dysfunctional parents, befriends two men, both of whom she starts to hang out with IRL. There’s dweeby 22-year-old Lewis (Ali Barouti), who she enters into a half-hearted sexual relationship with. And there’s 38-year-old Tim (John Hollingworth), a convicted paedophile who is suddenly in danger of becoming Dani’s bezzie. 

The play is effectively Prebble’s ‘Pablo Honey’: a promising enough debut dwarfed by what came next. Certainly you would never in a million years have predicted the follow-up would be the quantum leap that was ‘Enron’. And if it basically holds up, ‘The Sugar Syndrome’ hasn’t dated amazingly. It’s not so much that it virtually qualifies as a period drama now, though there is that, more that there’s something gratingly provocative about the adolescent girl/sex offender man pairing. The Court in 2003 was a building still heavily associated with the outrageousness of the in-yer-face-theatre movement. Then, I can imagine this play fitting in well; now, it feels crass.

Why revive it? Because it’s interesting to do so in light of what came name next; because it’s a perceptive study in the emotional liminality of adolescence from a writer who had only just left it; because there are some great lines, especially in the bruising exchanges between Dani and her equally vulnerable mother Jan (Alexandra Gilbreath). 

Perhaps the main thing, though, is that Oscar Toeman’s solid revival has a very, very fine professional debut from Rhodes. She plays Dani with all the preternatural articulacy and beyond-her-years sass of the high-school drama heroines the character is clearly informed by. But Rhodes gives her an almost unbearable awkwardness, a sense that however smart Dani might be, she doesn’t really understand the world, doesn’t feel comfortable in her own skin, wringing her hands nervily after she’s expertly delivered a zinger because her confidence is the thinnest of veneers. It’s a properly impressive turn – a few more like this and her star will rise higher than that of this worthwhile but minor play.


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