The Sugar Syndrome at Orange Tree Theatre
Anything set in the early noughties is now a period piece. The Sugar Syndrome half-embraces this status. Oscar Toeman’s production opens with the sound of a dial-up tone, CDs are stored in folders, and a character aspires to be a music journalist. All quaint relics, less than two decades old.
The same can be said for elements of the narrative. Dani (Jessica Rhodes) is online. When Lucy Prebble’s play was first staged in 2003 that meant chat rooms, limited usage and, in a world without Tinder, more pronounced fears about meeting someone off the web.
The 17-year-old’s offline excursions come at the opposite ends of a spectrum. In Lewis (Ali Barouti) she finds sex – well, eventually; initially they grope at each other’s genitals like inept thieves – maybe romance, a dose of male entitlement. And in Tim (John Hollingworth, an uneasy and earnest presence) she finds a predator.
Posing as an 11-year-old boy, Dani lures Tim to the park – the slow drop of a pair of child’s swings is chilling – surprising him with her age and gender. From that perverse starting point, however, a friendship forms, one that seems genuinely sincere in the face of its troubling implications.
Prebble bites off some massive topics – eating disorders, paedophilia – and then adds on top a distant father, a crumbling marriage, an unexplored fictional version of the Daily Mail and the fraught relationship between a mother (Alexandra Gilbreath) and daughter.
Even when it momentarily becomes more focused, the way the pieces are put together is a problem. Tim’s paedophilia is treated with great delicacy and compassion, akin to last year’s Downstate. However, by drawing an explicit parallel between his difficulties managing his urges and Dani’s eating disorder, the play ventures into unwise and irresponsible territory, undermining the strength of the character work. It also makes the ending, which includes a graphic audio account of sexual assault, incredibly hard to swallow.
What’s perhaps strange about the play is how backgrounded its internet is, despite pulsing lights and pinging sounds designed to emulate the dopamine rush of notifications. It might, honestly, just be the absence of smartphones, that plague of Pandora’s boxes. Regardless, the internet exists most in the audience’s awareness of how much easier it is now to give into the impulses and urges detailed in the play than when it was written.
If the Orange Tree production is valuable for any one thing, it is for giving Rhodes her professional debut. She projects a teenager’s shaky confidence and worldliness, making you feel like Dani is in control of Tim, while constantly showing how susceptible she is to his inappropriate manipulation. The Sugar Syndrome was the first step in an illustrious stage career for Prebble. Hopefully the same will be said for Rhodes.
Photos: The Other Richard
The Sugar Syndrome is at Orange Tree Theatre from 24th January until 22nd February 2020. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.