The Sugar Syndrome at the Orange Tree Theatre review ****

The Sugar Syndrome

Orange Tree Theatre, 27th January 2020

With last year’s A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic, The Effect from 2012, (about to be revived at the fancy newish Boulevard), and ENRON from 2010, as well as Secret Diary of a Cal Girl and, most recently, the utterly brilliant Succession, Lucy Prebble has desrevedly become one of our most feted writers for stage and screen. The Sugar Syndrome dates from 2003 and was her first full length play, winning awards and getting an airing at the Royal Court directed by one Marianne Elliott, who has similarly gone on to bigger and better things.

It may not be a perfect play, the two central characters, 17 year old Dani, who is has left hospital after treatment for an eating disorder, and Tim, in his thirties, and being monitored after a spell in prison for sex offences, are exaggerated, and defined largely by their behaviours. Their meeting, after Dani poses as a young boy in a chat room, and subsequent friendship, with Dani seeking psychological equivalence and Tim rapidly opening up, is uncomfortable and doesn’t quite ring true. On the other hand it does allow Ms Prebble to explore questions around on-line personae, (well before many others – this was still the MySpace era with Zuckerberg only just about to kick off at Harvard), addiction, self-harm, paedophilia and relationship, and her extraordinary ear for memorable dialogue is as plain here as it is in the later texts.

Debutante Jessica Rhodes goes all in with Dani, a fearless, physically expressive performance. Dani’s worldly-wise exterior is paper-thin, whereas John Hollingworth is asked to hold back in his portrayal of the guilt-ridden Tim. We will see Jessica Rhodes again soon of that I have no doubt. Alexandra Gilbreath is Jan, Dani’s Mum, who truly doesn’t understand her, and Ali Barouti is Lewis, the older boyfriend that Dani also meets on-line and who she strings along, and whose jealously catalyses the disturbing, if not surprising, conclusion. Oscar Toeman’s direction, alongside Rebecca Brower’s set and Elliott Griggs’s lighting design, creates a sharp delineation between the on-line and real worlds. This, and the performances, help to focus Ms Prebble’s slightly over-plotted narrative.

Even it’s faults, this is still an arresting play for a 22 year old to have written and I was a little surprised to see that the OT could claim is as the first major revival.

A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic review *****

A Very Expensive Poison

Old Vic Theatre, 9th September 2019

Lucy Prebble wrote The Effect, ENRON and The Sugar Syndrome all of which were rightly lauded. She is currently one of the writers on Succession the best thing on the telly in this, or any other, year. And Guardian journalist Luke Harding writes vital books about the modern state, two of which have already been made into films. So this adaptation of his book A Very Expensive Poison: The Definitive Story of the Murder of Litvinenko and Russia’s War with the West was always going to be A BIG THING. And so it proved. The Old Vic is always a good place to spy luvvie types on their nights off and the evening we (the SO and the Blonde Bombshells) went was no exception. I won’t say who the Tourist fawned over this time. Just that it was almost as great a pleasure as the play itself.

Now this being Lucy Prebble we were never going to get a straightforward narrative. Even so the sheer invention on/in show was breathtaking. First though a quick reminder of the story. Alexander Litvinenko was an officer of the Russian FSB secret police who specialised in investigating the links between the state and organised crime. In 1998 he and other officers publicly accused their superiors of ordering the assassination of oligarch, and thorn in Putin’s side, Boris Berezovsky. He was acquitted but re-arrested, and when the charges were again dismissed, he fled to London with his family, where he was granted asylum, wrote articles and books accusing the FSB and others of terrorist acts and worked with British intelligence. In November 2006 he suddenly fell ill and was hospitalised. It transpired that he had been poisoned by a lethal radioactive dose of polonium-210. The subsequent British investigation pinned the blame on Andrey Lugovoy a former member of Russia’s Federal Protection Service but he could not be extradited. Litvinenko’s widow Marina, together with biologist Alexander Goldfarb, tirelessly sought justice for her husband and a coroner’s inquiry was set up in 2011. This was eventually, after much foot dragging by the Home Office, (yep one T May was in charge), followed up with a public enquiry which in 2016 conclusively ruled that his murder was sponsored by the FSB and likely conducted with the direct approval of FSB director Nikolai Patrushev and Putin himself.

Not difficult to understand why Luke Harding would want to document this extraordinary story or why Lucy Prebble could see its dramatic potential. The action centres on the indefatigable Marina (MyAnna Buring) and, in a series of slickly staged flash-backs, forwards and sideways, jumping across genres, tackles the who, how and why of the crime. I would be a liar if I can remember all the striking scenes but let’s try a few. The song and dance routine in a quasi brothel led by Peter Polycarpou’s Berezovsky. Amanda Hadingue as Professor Dombey giving a rapid fire 101 lecture on the history of radiation complete with puppets, Tom Brooke’s oddball Alexander Litvinenko serving up deadpan humour from the hospital bed which regularly appears on stage in a thrice, the two incompetent stooges played by Lloyd Hutchinson and Michael Shaeffer sent to carry out the assassination, the super meta-theatricality of Reece Shearsmith’s petulant, but still sinister, Putin commenting unreliably from the Old Vic boxes, the tell-tale trail of radiation handprints, the powerful direct address to the audience from Marina, and, finally, Alexander.

Of course the whole idea is to mess around with the truth in order to show how the modern state messes about with the truth. This near vaudevillian approach to political satire is not especially new (for LP herself), indeed I could imagine Joan Littlewood lapping this text up in the heyday of the Theatre Workshop, but the juxtaposition with such a serious subject is what makes this so interesting and, in some ways, challenging. OK so I can see why some might tire of all the theatrical fun and games but the abrupt shifts in tone, with humour constantly undercutting the serious narrative, worked for us, and, judging by the reaction, the audience including my new celebrity friend.

Bringing all this together will have tested the directorial powers of John Crowley, who has spent most of the last decade on a movie set. However this is the man who brought Martin McDonagh’s Pillowman to the NT stage so this wasn’t going to phase him. Mind you success was in no small measure due to the versatile box set of Tom Scutt, the choreography of Aletta Collins and remarkably nifty stage management from Anthony Field, Jenefer Tait and Ruby Webb.

I have said it before and I’ll say it again. If you want to make a powerful political point in the theatre then humour is your best bet. But it is also the most difficult way to do so. Maybe this isn’t absolutely perfect but given how much Lucy Prebble has gifted us here, as in her previous plays, it is as close as dammit and for that we should be grateful.

Other People’s Money at Southwark Playhouse review ***

Other People’s Money

Southwark Playhouse, 23rd April 2019

The Tourist is a generous man. As a cursory glance at his “recommendations” on this blog will reveal. He accentuates the positive. And so it will prove here. Jerry Sterner’s play Other People’s Money was a big hit, when it first appeared, off Broadway in 1989. So big that it spawned a film, directed by Norman Jewison, and starring Danny DeVito. Mr Sterner never really matched this play, though I see that he had sufficient wit to have his headstone inscribed “finally, a plot”.

Whilst I can certainly imagine Mr DeVito, with his trademark New Jersey wisecrackery, relishing the lines delivered by Lawrence “Larry the Liquidator” Garfinkle (Garfield in the film, recognising the lazy stereotype), I can also concur, based on this production from Blue Touch Paper, that the film, like the play, falls a little short of the coruscating satire on 1980s US capitalist excesses that it purports to be. For that look no further than Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. The evil asset stripper Larry is more concerned with his one-liners than making a case for unfettered, free market Darwinism and his opponent, Andrew “Jorgy” Jorgenson, is just way too homespun to persuade as the benevolent CEO of family business New England Wire and Cable. And Kate Sullivan, daughter of Bea, Jorgy’s second wife and loyal assistant, is pretty unconvincing as the lawyer (not banker) called in to mount a defence against Larry’s hostile predation, (on the company as well as her virtue). The play makes some good points about the uneasy relationship between the shareholders that provide the capital to the industrialist who put it to work and gets a few details of process right. But it also, trust me, gets a fair few wrong and gets bogged down in cliche and homily. The ending, as with much of the comedy “chemistry” between Kate and Larry, is troubling.

Yet it does have a fair few good lines, some dynamism, if predictability, in it sub-plots and, in the hands of director Katherine Farmer, clips along at a fair pace. The traverse stage setting of Emily Leonard, means quick transitions from Jorgy’s office, battered desk and chairs, in the wire factory to Larry’s Manhattan lair, black and steel gleaming furniture and cubist artwork, and she has sourced some full on 80’s power dressing costumes. This though, like the main plot, locks the action down in its period which blunts any attempt at relevance.

For my money, (no pun intended), Beth Steel’s Labyrinth, which went back to the late 1970s and LatAm debt crisis had much more to say about the risks, and rewards, that the last four decades of financial capitalism have brought to the world and Sarah Burgess’s Dry Powder was a far more accurate, and detailed, blackly comic take on the individuality amorality that can ensue. And, as drama, probably because the real life tale is just so outrageous, Lucy Prebble’s Enron is far stronger. Oh, and of course, the genius Caryl Churchill nailed the genre in 1987 with Serious Money.

Mark Rose as Jorgy’s duplicitous COO William Coles, offered the most convincing performance, and kept the plot on track with his expositional narration. The rest, a shouty Michael Brandon as Jorgy, US born Amy Burke as “sassy” Kate, Lin Blakley, an Eastenders regular I gather, as the apple-pie Bea, and an uncomfortable looking Rob Locke as Larry, also over-egged it for me. The relationships between the characters were therefore as thinly drawn as the characters themselves.

So as an occasionally sparky period piece with the odd flash of insight it works. As an examination of the confrontation between these perspectives and the archetypes that populate them, with any contemporary relevance, or as family/individual drama, it falls a fair way short.