18 February 2020

Won over by The Sugar Syndrome at Orange Tree Theatre

As always these days I booked to see The Sugar Syndrome with some trepidation due to my mixed reaction to the current programming at Orange Tree Theatre. I did not help that it was written by Lucy Prebble who is famous for writing The Effect which I have listen to a couple of times on the radio and find the portrayal there of medical trials so wrong that it annoys me.

All that said, I do go to everything at Orange Tree Theatre so I booked a ticket for this too. Since my last booking, not that long ago, the system there had changed and they offered different price bands in different parts of the theatre - remember that there are only three rows of seating downstairs and one upstairs. My usual place in the front row was considerably more expensive that the second row so for the first time in many years I went for the second row and paid a ridiculously low £15 for seat B23.

The play did not get off to a good start either. I found the first scene to be too brutal (a couple having casual sex) and this was not helped by the harsh lighting and loud music.

I had problems with the aggressive staging throughout and that really hurt my enjoyment of the play

Luckily the story got much better and very quickly. Perhaps the first scene was just meant to shock us before the real story began.

The story was about psychologically troubled people trying to come to terms with the real world, whereas The Effect was about normal people trying to cope with a psychologically manipulated world. I think that this worked better.

The story wove around a young anorexic woman and a couple of people who she met in a chat room (the play was set in the near past when people used dial-up modems and had demon email addresses). One of these was a convicted paedophile and the other, never formally diagnosed, had problems forming relationships. Her mother also had absent husband issues so nobody in the play had an easy or a "normal" life.

From that fairly simple, if unusual, mix of ingredients Lucy Prebble crafted a story that gripped, enthralled, entertained, informed and stirred. It was powerful without being oppressive, dark without being gloomy and tense without being scary. For two hours I loved it.

Jessica Rhodes as the young woman did a great job but the performance that grabbed me the most was by John Hollngworth, the paedophile, who knew exactly who he was and how bad his life was always going to be because of that, and who had come to terms with this. He was a very sick man who you could feel a lot of sympathy for.

I felt that the final scene, like the first, let the play down. A natural conclusion had been reached and the dialogue ended with a nice simple every-day phrase. The play could have ended then. No more words were spoken but there was a final scene that I found to be too final and somewhat unfitting with what had gone on before, this was not a situation that you could have a simple ending. If this play makes it to the radio too then I guess it will have to end where I wanted it to end so that is something to look forward to!

The Sugar Syndrome was a fine play that managed to shine through the treatment it was given and through my preconceptions. I would like to see, or hear, another production of it one day.

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