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The Sugar House at Finborough Theatre

The recently reopened and redecorated Finborough Theatre gives Alana Valentine’s play The Sugar House a magnificently acted and well directed first UK staging.

The Sugar House - Pamela Raith Photography.
The Sugar House – Pamela Raith Photography.

First seen in Sydney in 2018, in a disused tomato sauce factory rather than a sugar factory, the play looks at the progression of an Australian working-class family from 1967 to 2007, mainly from the female point of view.

Janine Ulfane is beautifully controlled as June Macreadie, the matriarch of the family, determined that her granddaughter, Narelle, will climb out of poverty and “bad blood” to make something of herself. Narelle (Jessica Zerlina Leafe) is perhaps the most challenging role to play, as she has to appear as a child of eight for most of Act One, as a disruptive student in Act Two and as a woman with a mission and memories when the play leaps forward occasionally to 2007. She is most believable as the student, especially physically, whereas what she has to say is, at times, trite.

Fiona Skinner is the embodiment of the daughter with a failed marriage, Margo, and her suffering is evident throughout. We empathise much more with her than with the others as no matter what she does, tragedy is just around the corner.

Sidney Macreadie (Patrick Toomey), quietly gets on with his poorly paid work at the sugar factory and attempts to smooth everything over in the family, especially with regard to Ollie, his wayward son, intellectually limited, portrayed with great understanding by Adam Fitzgerald. Toomey is also given several other characters, all of which are suitably differentiated, but his principal role would have been much stronger if he had just been asked to play one role – or perhaps this is the playwright’s idea!

Lea Dube also has to double roles, that of Ollie’s girlfriend and that of a ‘real estate’ agent, which is nicely stereotyped!

Tom Brennan, the director, clearly realised that the play is very ‘wordy’, in fact almost every scene is an argument where no problems are actually solved, and has ensured that his production proceeds not only loudly, but also with great pace and energy: it rarely relaxes, which can be exhausting for the audience.

The multi-purpose traverse stage set has been designed by Justin Nardella, looking perhaps too clean, and the lighting (Sherry Coenen) ensures that not only is the mood created, but that we are also always able to see facial expressions.

As for the play itself, it seems to try to do too much in a too short time by dealing not only with one family over 40 years, but also with the Australian death penalty, police corruption and working-class poverty.

The Sugar House is worth seeing because, as usual at the Finborough Theatre, production values are very high and the standard of ensemble acting superb.

4 stars

Review by John Groves

Narelle is Sydney born and bred, but lately she’s lost her sense of belonging.
The city changes all the time, places are torn down and with them go her certainties.
She finds herself drawn back to Pyrmont, formerly the working-class industrial heartland of the city, but now newly gentrified as 19th-century factories become shiny apartment blocks with million-dollar views of Sydney Harbour. But it remains her family’s bedrock, and the home of her extraordinary grandmother June.

As she keeps going over the forces that formed her – the last man hanged in Australia, the mistakes that changed lives, her mother’s divorce, her grandfather’s decline – she tries to make sense of what she, her city, and her country have become. And what has been lost along the way.

Focusing on three generations of remarkable women, The Sugar House is a deeply moving family drama that distils the conflict of how we are raised against what we choose, and how the hope of social transformation as we move forward to embrace the future sometimes means the irretrievable loss of what built us.

The European Premiere
by Alana Valentine.
Directed by Tom Brennan.
Set and Costume Design by Justin Nardella.
Lighting by Sherry Coenen.
Sound Design by Ellie Showering.
Casting by Lucy Casson.

Presented by A Million Freds in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre.

Tuesday, 26 October – Saturday, 20 November 2021


  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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