The Sugar Syndrome, directed by Tasmin Swanson, is a fundamentally modern play that deals with modern themes. Based around the cyber world of internet chat rooms, the play begins with the introduction of Dani (played by Coco Claxton), a 17 year old girl recovering from anorexia nervosa and a stint in a clinic, who frequently delves into the world of the internet to escape her less than idyllic home life with her mother, Jan (Alexandra Koronkai-Kiss) and frequently absent father. It is through these means that she discovers the deeply insecure, slightly older Lewis (Peter Swallow) and the significantly older, more disturbed Tim (Alex Levine). Through the anonymity presented by the internet, Dani allows Tim to believe she is an eleven-year-old boy. Though Tim is initially alarmed upon seeing and discovering that the pre-pubescent ‘Danny Boy’ is in fact a teenaged girl, the two soon become friends and both agree to support the other throughout their respective issues.
Technology is an unavoidable presence throughout the play, be it through Dani’s multiple internet interactions or her mother’s debilitating lack of understanding of it. This comes through in the dialogue between characters as well, with even face-to-face conversations taking on a rather static quality, particularly in Act I. This is not a criticism – rather than detracting from the play, it simply highlighted the bizarreness of the internet age in which we all live.
It was also nice to see the Barron used so well, with none of the action feeling too large for the space, instead providing a claustrophobic tension that was suitably appropriate to the subject matter. There could perhaps have been greater use of technology in the play as the screen at the back of the stage was, when utilised, very effective and added significantly to the action which was happening on the stage.
The performances were, on the whole, strong with Claxton giving a convincing performance of a confused girl trying to establish some sort of control over her life, convincing herself that her actions are ‘helping people’, with dangerous results. Levine walks the line between being an incredibly morally reprehensible character and figure of sympathy with impressive skill. The chemistry between Claxton and Levine was excellent, and their scenes together, particularly in Act II, were some of the strongest. The character of Lewis is less immediately grabbing, but certainly more relatable. I found myself growing more and more concerned for Dani’s wellbeing as Lewis grew increasingly possessive over her. Swallow plays this well, conveying all the social awkwardness of a boy who has grown up with the safety net of the internet and struggles to know how to react outside of this medium.
Perhaps most impressive, however, was the excellent performance of Koronkai-Kiss as a mother simultaneously trying to comprehend the mind of her daughter and support her whilst dealing with the dissolution of her marriage. Koronkai-Kiss is utterly believable in this and her speech in the final scene is well performed and touching.
Make no mistake: this is a production which pulls absolutely no punches and uncompromisingly deals with each of its – often taboo – themes. The events of the final scene are particularly harrowing, leaving a shocked, uncomfortable audience. It is to Swanson’s credit that she does not avoid these themes, delivering a play which is perhaps alarmingly applicable to our own present day realities.
Images courtesy of the Mermaid's production of The Sugar Syndrome.