As someone once referred to as “the left-leaning arm of Everything Theatre”, I felt it my duty to cast a socialist eye over a play about that most awful of things, gentrification. I was ready to wield my pen and rant about injustices, how the heart is being ripped from our wonderful cities, how it displaces those born and bred when they can no longer afford to remain. Except, well, damn you Finborough Theatre, Alana Valentine’s The Sugar House threw me a curveball. So instead of a rant, it raised a more nuanced issue of ‘why wouldn’t we want better for our children?’
The Sugar House is typically Finborough; big, bold and ambitious. It follows three generations of the Macreadie family, over three different moments in time. And whilst set in Australia, apart from differing accents and an important thread about capital punishment, it could be any city where factories, once the beating heart of community, are now luxury flats. That’s exactly what happens to the sugar refinery where Sidney Macreadie (Patrick Toomey) works when we first meet the family in 1967. The building is the constant that binds together these different moments in time, even though, like the family, it changes drastically over the years.
Such a big, ambitious play needs big characters to match, and in matriarch June (Janine Ulfane) and granddaughter Narelle (Jessica Zerlina Leafe) it certainly has them. The pair drive the narrative throughout. Leafe does a marvellous job of making us believe she is just eight years old for most of the first half, before turning into a rebellious, outspoken 20-something after the interval, rallying against the injustices she feels come from her poverty, whilst her university peers seem to have had it all much easier. It’s as an eight-year-old Narelle she first hears the phrase “bad blood”, something June is desperate to hide in her own family history. But when wayward son Ollie (Adam Fitzgerald) gets into trouble with the police, it’s hard to hide some home truths: “You grow up being poor, that’s the same as growing up being guilty”.
Grandmother and granddaughter are more than ably supported by Fiona Skinner and Adam Fitzgerald, as June’s grown-up children, Margo and Ollie, and Lea Dube in her professional debut as the girlfriend who surprises all by sticking around when Ollie is incarcerated. It is Toomey though who really does the hard work of holding things together, not just as husband and grandfather, but corrupt policeman, doctor, MP and Attorney General. His range is so good that it would be easy to assume it was different actors in each role. Alongside the cast, things are further supported by Justin Mardella’s simple set design and Tom Brennan’s directing; table and chairs all that are needed to depict kitchen, office, and remarkably, a hospital bed.
At the play’s heart is the concept of how each generation wants better for the next. The gentrification changes not just buildings, but people too. June strives to better her family, always aware of where she came from, pushing Narelle to lead a life that none of them could ever have hoped for. The 1985 Narelle threatens to ruin it all, but it is family that turns her energy and angry into something more positive. It is perhaps a little too convenient how certain narrative elements fall into place, but that can be forgiven when the meaning is so very clear – that change can be good, provided it is not at the expense of those less fortunate; that gentrification might not be perfect, but advancement is what we all strive for; something better for those who will follow us in life.
Written by: Alana Valentine
Directed by: Tom Brennan
Produced by: A Million Freds Production
The Sugar House plays at The Finborough Theatre until 20 November. Further information and tickets via the below link.