The Sydney suburb of Pyrmont has worn many faces in its time: pre-invasion, it was Pirrama, home to the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, whose population was devastated by a smallpox epidemic in 1789. Post-invasion, now called Pyrmont after a natural spring in Germany, it was an industrial hot-spot, a working-class and below-poverty-line suburb. But beginning in the 1990s, it’s settled into a new identity; one that’s gentrified, expensive and upper-middle-class.
That’s where we begin The Sugar House – a new play by Alana Valentine – in a fashionable Pyrmont building with cultural-heritage-chic features. It used to be a CSR sugar refinery, a real estate agent explains, but Narelle (Sheridan Harbridge) already knows this. She convinces the real estate agent to leave her in the apartment she’s inspecting, and it’s clear that the place is meaningful to her.
Suddenly, we find out why. Suddenly, Narelle is eight years old again, following her grandfather Sidney (Lex Marinos) around the refinery, where he works as a fitter and turner. The play melts into memory, and we melt with it into the life and times of the Macreadie family. It’s headed up by Sidney and his steely, indomitable wife June (Kris McQuade). Narelle is their dear love and great hope; she might have a chance at climbing the class ladder.
It’s too late for their own children to get out of Pyrmont – something June has told her daughter Margo (Sacha Horler) in as many words. Margo is rightfully bitter because she is stymied, often, by class and circumstance – can she have the luxury of leaving her husband when she has Narelle and her own means of survival to think about?
She’s also never been the favourite. That’s Ollie (Josh McConville), Margo’s brother, a rascal with a rakish smile and bright, adventurous new girlfriend (Nikki Shiels). But when the cops show up on June's doorstep looking for Ollie, something old and patched-over in June breaks open again, and the family is set on a new, unstoppable course.
Moving through time from 2007 to 1966, 1985, and back again, The Sugar House is an Australian saga of family, legacy and our unique national inequities; it’s about power and how difficult it is to obtain that power when you’re born without it. It’s about cycles of poverty, Sydney’s long relationship with corruption and crime, and the cruelties within the prison system. It addresses how intergenerational shame plays into very personal questions about identity and belonging.
For a play with such big conversations at its heart, it’s still a family story. This is a deeply-felt production that sits comfortably at the intersection of pragmatism and poignancy. Valentine’s characters aren’t overly sentimental but they have wells of emotion both tapped and untapped; they navigate their lives in ways you may recognise and re-interpret about your own family. It’s sprawling and generations-big but feels surprisingly intimate. In the audience, my mind kept flashing back to a perfect, vivid image of my grandmother’s garden, flanking either side of the front door to her home. It’s that kind of play – yours and not yours, about you and about everyone, about one family and about many Australian families.
The production is led by a grounded, quietly remarkable performance by Sheridan Harbridge as Narelle, who must move from playing a child to an adult and back again. She’s matched in strength and presence by McQuade’s June, a towering and complex matriarch. She’s loving, but she isn’t nice, and there’s whole aching worlds in this representation of a tough working-class woman. This is a play for women in all their differences, flaws and brilliance, and this cast more than rises to the challenge; Horler’s Margo is ferocious and lost and proud; Shiels’ Jenny travels a thoughtfully-rendered path over the years from carefree to steadfast. Marinos and McConville give fine performances, particularly McConville, but this story centres the women, and it is their space and the twinned, two-sided coin of June and Narelle, that supports this play from inside out.
Director Sarah Goodes brings sharp judgement to a play that proudly sprawls, curlicues of plot and suggestion spilling out from scenes and beyond, keeping us set on a path of no-bullshit Australiana with a side of love and justice. Michael Hankin’s set spans decades and place without effort and fuss (this play is the antithesis of fuss) and Damien Cooper’s lighting effortlessly captures the passage of time, Sydney sun, and deeper mood. Steve Francis’ music – and some singing from a very capable cast – threatens to push the production into naked emotionality, but when we do skirt up to that edge it feels earned.
Valentine, an essential Australian dramatist, writes the marginalised and oft-persecuted fringes of Australia into our dramatic canon with long-denied dignity and grace. The Sugar House is a gift of theatre; an exploration of who we were, who we are and who we wish we could be.