Narelle (Sheridan Harbridge) skirts across a converted factory floor, all brushed concrete and industrial chic, flanked by an eager estate agent (Nikki Shiels). It’s an all too common scene as Sydney’s working class havens make way for heritage apartment conversions, hip cafes and pet-owning professionals. Narelle however stalks the space with a touch of melancholy, craftily convincing the agent to let her stay while she leaves for another appointment, but stays to soak up the aura of its history.
Suddenly she’s eight, watching her grandfather Sidney (Lex Marinos) work that same factory floor, then a sugar refinery. Her grandmother June (Kris McQuade) is the matriarch of a family trying to get through a dark and storied past. Her mother Margo (Sacha Horler) has run from an abusive husband while her uncle Ollie (Josh McConville) has gotten in too deep with the local cops; corrupt to the core. While June attempts to keep the Macreadie clan together – and Ollie away from jail – the family wrestles with injustices, both systemic and generational.
Another twenty years sees Narelle at law school and reconciling her underclass roots with that of her monied peers. Recognizing the same lack of privilege her family are used to, she’s chosen the best way forward is to check out altogether and turn to activism. The rest of the clan however have other ideas, seeing Narelle as the only ticket out of their ‘bad blood’.
The cast work extremely hard on stage, with many playing multiple characters. While this works in parts, in can be to the detriment of an actor’s main character, particularly Marinos in juggling a number of incidental roles outside of Sidney. McQuade is stoic and poised throughout but will likely hopefully build more heart as June as the run continues. McConville and Horler are stunning, both equal parts bravado and vulnerability in their respective roles, with Horler stealing the show with a particularly poignant and layered monologue. Harbridge is versatile as Narelle at three stages of life, and plays the child truthfully and with curiosity.
Writer Alana Valentine’s dialogue is at points preachy rather than demonstrative; the writer’s ideas coming directly through the characters rather than from them. Michael Hankin’s set design is beautifully simple, with Damien Cooper’s lighting design complimenting it perfectly.
As a comment on development and progress at the cost of the labour class, its thematic drivers might be a little too sharp, but as a story of a family binding together with grit to support the one dove that might fly away, it’s an interesting and heartfelt watch.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Sugar House is enjoying performances at Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre until 3rd June 2018. For tickets and more details head here: https://belvoir.com.au/productions/the-sugar-house/