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Tiny Beautiful Things

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
  1. Tiny Beautiful Things at Belvoir
    Photograph: Belvoir/Brett Boardman
  2. Tiny Beautiful Things at Belvoir
    Photograph: Belvoir/Brett Boardman
  3. Tiny Beautiful Things at Belvoir
    Photograph: Belvoir/Brett Boardman
  4. Tiny Beautiful Things at Belvoir
    Photograph: Belvoir/Brett Boardman
  5. Tiny Beautiful Things at Belvoir
    Photograph: Belvoir/Brett Boardman
  6. Tiny Beautiful Things at Belvoir
    Photograph: Belvoir/Brett Boardman
  7. Tiny Beautiful Things at Belvoir
    Photograph: Belvoir/Brett Boardman
  8. Tiny Beautiful Things at Belvoir
    Photograph: Belvoir/Brett Boardman

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

This theatrical adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling book (based on the runaway success of her anonymous advice column) had landed on the Sydney stage

We are all struggling with something. Sometimes the struggle is external, and sometimes it’s our own selves that we battle daily. Often, the only solace we find is in knowing that others are also grappling with something. In recent years, the internet has become a place where anyone can find their community, or at least a space to anonymously offload. There are hundreds of blogs and Reddit threads where countless people seek advice on everything from recovering from grief to the best cities to visit in Spain.

The age-old saying "you never know what someone else is going through" is vividly portrayed in the stage adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's popular book, Tiny Beautiful Things, created by Nia Vardalos (of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame). The book (full title Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar) is a compilation of entries from the anonymous advice column  Strayed wrote under the pseudonym Sugar for the online literary magazine The Rumpus from 2010 to 2012, which garnered a cult following.

The play's strength lies in moments where the storytelling shifts to focus on living through the unthinkable... eliciting tears from many in the audience.

Premiering off-Broadway at The Public Theatre in December 2016, the play caught audiences’ attention due to Strayed's popularity from the film adaptation of her 2012 memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, produced by Reese Witherspoon, and directed by Thomas Kail (of Hamilton fame). It played to sold-out crowds, but never made it to Broadway. Now, it comes to the Sydney stage as part of Belvoir St Theatre’s eclectic 2024 season.

Similar to the book, the play (co-conceived by Marshall Heyman, Kail, and Vardalos) unfolds as a series of call-and-answer vignettes. Three actors (Stephen Geronimos, Nic Prior and Angela Nica Sullen) portray various people who wrote to Sugar (played here by Mandy McElhinney) speaking directly to the audience, with Sugar responding in turn. 

The episodic nature of the storytelling creates a fair amount of monotony as the actors move around a set designed to look like the interior of a house. There’s a working kitchen, lounge area, stairs to another floor, a small patio and a cluttered kitchen table on which Sugar sits (her laptop is open but she barely looks into it). Here, the world wide web is the audience. Lighting designer Bernie Tan-Hayes finds all the nooks in this chunky set, surfacing each actor from the shadows to share heartache, grief, frustration and the amusingly relatable general sentiment of, simply, “WTF?” 

The play's strength lies in moments where the storytelling shifts to focus on living through the unthinkable. Stephen Geronimos captures universal exasperation as the "WTF" guy, and also taps into innate vulnerability as a grieving father in "Living Dead Dad", eliciting tears from many in the audience. Nic Prior stands out, especially when they're playing a transgender man grappling with repairing his relationship with his parents in "Orphan". Angela Nica Sullen delivers a poignant portrayal of a young woman struggling with the grief of miscarriage in "Stuck".

Lee Lewis’s direction of the Australian production sees Cheryl (McElhinney) move through each vignette, methodically packing away toys, making lunches for her kids, and cleaning up her cluttered home. Cleaning up the house may be a metaphor for sorting out other’s problems, but it's rather low hanging fruit – it comes across as overcomplicated, distracting from the central storytelling. Perhaps the intent is to show the dichotomy of Sugar the persona versus Cheryl Strayed the person via allusions to children and chores. The problem is that we never actually see her duality. The Sugar who cheated on her husband, battled a heroin addiction, and has long-lasting trauma from the loss of her mother is a far cry from the calm, collected domesticity portrayed. 

This is exacerbated by the play’s fixation on Sugar’s identity – the audience is not in on this joke. McElhinney’s portrayal of Sugar is overly earnest, often adopting an abrasive tone to urge the letter writers to embrace life. Her recollections of her past lack sombre or vulnerable moments, sticking purely to the factual without referencing current struggles. What was her life like while she was giving this advice? Was it falling apart? Or is she completely whole and healed from her past traumas? Beyond that, what gives  this woman, who has no qualifications in counselling or crisis support, the right to give advice to people living through such troubling circumstances? 

These unanswered questions lead to some awkward delivery. Sugar/Cheryl’s saint-like persona creates an uncomfortable dynamic where a person of colour and a non-binary actor are seen to repeatedly glorify and look up to this straight, white, middle-class-presenting woman’s  unqualified, unprofessional advice.

It seems like the real Strayed has learnt from the challenges of this adaptation, executive producing a television series by the same name with America’s ABC network and Reese Witherspoon's production company, Hello Sunshine. The series, which premiered in 2023 and is currently streaming on Disney+ (I absolutely devoured in just a few days), takes a stronger narrative-based approach to Strayed’s book, expertly piecing together her life experiences linearly to demonstrate how Sugar ultimately allowed Strayed to accept her past and forgive herself. Now that’s a journey we all want to be on. 

You can catch Tiny Beautiful Things at Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills, until March 2. Tickets available from $39-$95 on the website.


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Vaanie Krishnan
Written by
Vaanie Krishnan


Opening hours:
Tue-Wed 6.30pm, Thu-Sat 7.30pm, Thu 1pm, Sat 2pm, Sun 5pm
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