The Sugar House review

Review: The Sugar House


The Sugar House

A review by Jenny Booth: The Sugar House at Finborough Theatre

IMAGE CREDIT: Pamela Raith


In the last scene of The Sugar House, lead actress Janine Ulfane rolls out a lump of pastry with such viciousness that the dough ends up undulating like the waves of the sea. Her character, matriarch June Macreadie, moulds her own family with the same fierce energy, pummelling them relentlessly with her will. Her daughter and granddaughter come close to breaking under the pressure. During the play the audience comes to understand June’s demons, and the forces from her hardscrabble past that have produced this urgent desire to control and perfect. The playwright of this intense and riveting Australian family saga, Alana Valentine, writes in her introduction that she hopes English audiences will be inspired to go home and start a conversation about the emotional forces that have shaped their own family history.

Underpinning June’s fears, and also driving many of the wider injustices condemned by the drama, is the notion of “bad blood” – the idea that you can be born worthless, with a propensity written into your DNA to commit crime and waste your life. Valentine hints at an inherent guilt in the Australian psyche about white Australia’s roots in a convict colony. When June discovers her son Ollie (Adam Fitzgerald) has been caught trying to earn easy cash by receiving stolen goods, it reawakens all the fears from her own childhood about the heavy-handed arrogance and even blatant corruption the law uses against Australia’s poor white underclass.

But although Ollie’s misbehaviour is the driver of the action in first half of the play, Valentine is mainly interested in the women in the family. This is a play about June’s matriarchy and her impact on her daughter Margo (Fiona Skinner) and granddaughter Narelle (Jessica Zerlina Leafe). Ollie’s is the only male character that is fleshed out and it is telling that all but one of the other male parts are played – with remarkable versatility – by the same actor, Patrick Toomey. The main action is played out in 1967 and 1985, as Margot and Narelle – both of whom are excellent – deal with June’s tyranny. The action is framed by brief scenes set in 2007 after June’s death. It is a superb central performance by Ulfane, all the more intense because the audience sits on both sides of the stage in the tiny, corridor-like Finborough Theatre. All the characters bring utter conviction and commitment to their roles. A deeply human play, The Sugar House is also full of ideas. If it has a flaw it is Valentine’s tendency to over-explain. If director Tom Brennan had cut about 20 minutes of dialogue it would have honed this involving play to perfection.

On at the Finborough Theatre until 20 Nov 2021