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The Sugar House

Photo by Brett Boardman

Belvoir presents, THE SUGAR HOUSE, by Alana Valentine, in the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St, Surry Hills. 5th May- 3rd June.

THE SUGAR HOUSE, is a new Australian play, by Alana Valentine.

Find the best ‘Lions’, give them good ‘meat’, and we will all have a great feast. The Lions = the Actors, the good meat = the play, the feast = the audience (participation).

It seemed to me as this play gently unwound in a daring ‘stately’ tempo, reaching (and revealing) an ‘epic’, led confidently, by Director, Sarah Goodes, the best of actors, Kris McQuade, as June Macreadie, Sacha Horler, as Margo Macreadie, Sheridan Harbridge, as Narelle Macreadie, in leading roles representing three generations of women from the one family, across the years from 1966 to 2007, in the sugar factory (C.S.R. the Colonial Sugar Refinery) suburb of Pyrmont, in Sydney, with Lex Marinos, as grandad Sidney Macreadie and Josh McConville, as son/brother, Ollie Macreadie, who has a girlfriend, Jenny, played by Nikki Shields, we traversed an experience that is deep in compassionate observation of the working poor in a molasses of petty crime and institutional corruption, trying, struggling, to keep themselves above the ‘drowning’ plimsoll line.

The good ‘meat’ is the personal and political astuteness of Ms Valentine’s storytelling – narrative writing – that is combined with the creation of characters so beautifully realised that any actor would give their eye-teeth to have possession of them, that they will become iconic figures in our Australian literary canon. The characters have an authenticity of a studied and owned relationship, especially, that of June, Margo and Narelle – that they feel as if they come as a cri de coeur from the heart of Ms Valentine’s own life. Three magnificently realised Australian women.

THE SUGAR HOUSE, reminds one of Ray Lawler’s THE SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL, Peter Kenna’s THE SLAUGHTER OF ST TERESA’S DAY and A HARD GOD, or Dorothy Hewett’s THIS OLD MAN COMES ROLLING HOME. Pearl or particularly, Olive; Oola Maguire and Agggie Cassidy; Laurie and Julie Dockerty now have new sisters that will resonate in our Aussie consciousness as exemplars of lives lived in circumstances of social difficulty and who yet find paths of humanity to survive with an earned optimism.

Undoubtedly, this new work is of an old-fashioned traditional genre but that very quality, for some of us, sitting in this unsteady time when the Pillars of our Community and their leaders are crumbling about us – the church, the banks (the financial system), the governments (at all levels: local, state, Federal, International) – what of the Medical profession? – gives us a new voice that shines a light to tell us, today, that even those who appear to be the victims of society, the hopeless, the ‘debris’, the ‘toys’, can have hope, if they have a vision and a persistence to pursue positive change. It is the human element of each of the persons that inhabit this play that grants us indulgence so as to give ourselves condolence. This ‘old fashioned’ play gives one a warm and welcome nostalgic injection of life with its simple direct storytelling told by recognisable and ‘heroic’ women. It is a ‘formula’ of a tried and true Aussie tradition.

What gives further layer to this text and allows me to include Stephen Sewell’s ‘family’ works in the above list of treasured experiences, THE BLIND GIANT IS DANCING, and an even earlier one, especially, THE FATHER WE LOVED WHO LIVED BY THE SEA, or DIVING FOR PEARLS, by Katherine Thomson, is that THE SUGAR HOUSE, like Mr Sewell’s and Ms Thomson’s works, has a political vocalisation that cuts through to a sad timeless sociological core that signals an observation of human history and the way it is manipulated by the ‘victors’ to bury the painful truths of social injustice and disrespect, the disregard of the need of human rights for all.

Says Sid, of his wife June: “You grow up being poor, Jenny, and you soon learn it is exactly the same thing as being guilty. They don’t need a reason to jail you, or beat you, mistreat you or break you. Being born with the smoke of the char house in your lungs and the daily dusting of coal on your skin, and the scream of industry in your blood and your ears, that’s her ticket to terror, my girl. You know why people struggle to get out of this suburb, out of this poverty, Jenny? Being poor is not unhappy, having nothing is not the worst thing. The worst thing is that being poor is dangerous – knowing no-one and no-one knowing you.”

June, the matriarch of this family, who fled, as a young woman, a violent criminal family of her own in Balmain: a razor gang – has fought for a life for her own children and a society that will give her family a status of relevancy and honour. Pursuing the end to State Executions – the era of Ronald Ryan – June, in any modest way she can, becomes an activist of protest and to the hatching of a strategy to ensure that her own children will climb from the molasses morass of Pyrmont, through the education and career of her granddaughter, Narelle.

June: “I won’t apologise for teaching her (Narelle) to fight. She understands that this is a human rights struggle.”
Replies Margo, June’s daughter and Narelle’s mother: “But I never have. I hate your version of change. It’s just all this sweat and blood and time that took you away from me. And her away from me. And you change it up and they change it back. And deep down, Mum, right deep down, I don’t think it’s the laws or the rope or even the suffering that motivates you. I think right deep down there’s this scream inside you that makes you want to lash out at the world and this one – this injustice, this absolute challenge to life and hope – it drives you because within it there is no possibility of redemption. And you need that hope, you need to believe in redemption more than anything. What scares you most? Most of all? That your granddaughter’s newfound middle-class life will be just a thin topsoil over her ugly, ignorant, bad-blood past. A thin layer of advantage that can be blown away by the winds of change.

And that’s why, in the luckiest country in the world, we crouch in fear, in terror of what our kid’s might, if we don’t watch them, slip back to. It’s what makes you and all of the rest of us so ruthless and so mean. And what are you looking for, Mum? The day when people coming here will think we were never hungry, never poor, never wading through shit and choking on smoke, dying of rickets and whooping cough. You know the worst thing about pretending to be all polished and posh, people start to believe that’s all you’ve ever been. They tear everything down in this city, tear it down and gussy it up. We paid for this city like everyone else, so why are we never listened to? Why are our memories and sense of belonging so worthless in this city?”

It’s 2007, and this play opens in a renovated factory work space that has been prepared as a living accommodation – original windows, brick work and heavy roof support beams, all painted white, with a poured grey concrete floor, where we meet a young professional woman, who, oddly, seems to have an affinity to this space, and a real estate person who has no knowledge at all of the history of the building and its industrial relics around this estate known as Jackson’s Landing. Suddenly, we are whisked back, immersed in 1966 and the building in factory mode, with granddad Sid as a fitter and turner on the machinery.

The Set Design by Michael Hankin, cleverly accommodates the shifting locations of the play with minimal portable furniture within the embrace of the modern new interior architectural design usage. Damien Cooper organises his lighting to assist the location and time changes and the drama of the scenes supported by Composition from Steve Francis, manipulated by Michael Toisuta, as the Sound Designer.

Our professional woman has been taken back in time to when she was 8 years old and living with her Grandparents, Sid and June. They are two time carnations of Narelle, and the subtlety of Emma Vine’s quick-change costume choices, facilitate those adjustments for us with tremendous acuity, as it continues to do with all the costumes throughout the play production.

Sheridan Harbridge, as Narelle, becomes the spinal thread to the journey of this play and she captures every element, the incorrigibly bright 8 year old (1966), the rebellious street university activist (1985) and the confrontational young lawyer (2007). We have often engaged with Ms Harbridge, on our Sydney stages, in her comic genius, in works such as CALAMITY JANE, and so it is a great pleasure to see her creating a character arc of a fearsome range revealing such a depth of dramatic skill – something that has been waiting for a Director to cause to blossom. Similarly, Sacha Horler, as the neglected daughter and misused wife, Margo, brings a scorching ferocity to the unhappiness of the working white poor female spoiling for the same attention that is showered on her brother Oliver, by her mother – just for some crumb of love, even just, a gentle affection – a touch, a hug.

But it is the towering focus and concentration, the husbanding of tremendous emotions, delivered in deliberate restraint of clues, often with virtuosic speed, in scene following scene (and, she is in almost every scene), from Kris McQuade, that is the affective force of this storytelling. Ms McQuade’s contribution is astounding and deeply, deeply moving in her revelation of that stubborn no-nonsense love behaviour of many a woman of June’s class and generation. Some of the detailing of the emotional conflicts, played by Ms McQuade in the journey of June are awe-inspiring in their understated power and elegance of choice. A performance to treasure – it is what one scented in her glowering but tempered work in the Belvoir production of NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH, by Lally Katz – and here, in THE SUGAR HOUSE, it is in full dramatic bloom.

The raw honesty of Nikki Shields in her narrative growth as Jenny – from fun time girl to a sure guiding-hand wife – and the contrasted satire sketch of Prin, the real estate agent, registers why we should see more of the possibility of her range (strangely strangled in/by the production of THE ROVER, last year.) While Josh Mc Conville, similarly shows a versatility in witty comic observation in the creation of his tattooist, Zee, and a courage to grasp the passions and bad behaviour of a working class man, Ollie, trapped in a world of under privilege and social derailment with a fine line demarcation of ugly brutality and sensitive heart. Lex Marinos, covers a range of men with commitment, with a particularly suave ownership of the Attorney General, Terence Sheanhan.

This production from Sarah Goodes, follows on from her work on THE SMALL THINGS, THE CHILDREN, SWITZERLAND, BATTLE OF WATERLOO amongst much else and, surely, marks her as one of the more gifted Directors at work in Australia at the moment. Her comprehension of the needs of the playwright and the nurturing of her actors to help them reveal the best that they have to serve the writer for the audience experience is outstanding. Too, it is her creative nerve, that one must admire. Some may think that the production is too slow, and it might be if you want colourful action, but if you appreciate the minutiae of detail then it all holds power and immense reward. It takes nerve to hold to your instincts about the style of the individual work under your care and to stick to it. I am sure Alana Valentine is grateful. That is not to say that Ms Valentine could not further, gently, edit, to bring her play to an even more powerful experience.

This play has the possibility to give you an AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY sweep. It certainly brings some pressure onto the up-coming adaptation of Ruth Parks’ trilogy of novels, set in Surry Hills with a working class family, THE HARP IN THE SOUTH, at The Sydney Theatre Company – a set of novels that have the nostalgic history of my personal lovings, which THE SUGAR HOUSE, reminded me of. THE SUGAR HOUSE has emotive nostalgia but also a political context of ripe urgency.

A classic is born.