Review by Sam Waite
Warning: Sugar Coat contains frank discussions of sexual assault, abortion, and miscarriage, some of which will be referenced in this review.
Female-fronted gig theatre is making its mark in London’s Off West End – following on the heels of Collette Cooper’s play-cum-Joplin gig Tomorrow May Be My Last, former Vault Festival favourite Sugar Coat struts into the Southwark Playhouse. Boasting a creative team comprised almost entirely of women and non-binary creatives, the 90’s Riot Grrrl aesthetic starts from the moment you enter – if you don’t know Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, or Letters to Cleo, you may want to once this raucous evening of rock and roll lets out.
A pre-show playlist leads into Sugar Coat’s titular band taking to the stage – singing along to the likes of Hole’s “Celebrity Skin” served as a warmup act to the performance itself. The story of a nameless heroine is told first person by lead vocalist Dani Heron, with the remainder of the group cycling through multiple roles each. Like a showcase of a concept album’s highlights with lengthy stretches of banter with the audience in-between, the 90 minutes fly by as key moments are punctuated with musical interludes.
Lightning by Martha Godfrey and sound design by Lucy Barker Swinburn help to sell the fantasy of a gig by an up-and-coming rock band – but the instant star of the show, before anyone sets foot on stage, is Ruth Badila’s set. While the band’s name glowing from the back of the stage gives the illusion of a big show, a glance around the stage finds Bikini Kill and Rocky Horror Show posters, as well as feminist literature and stacked records, suggesting that this “gig” is actually the fantastical idea of a group still rocking out in their basement. The musical sequences, interspersed between the storytelling portions, make bolder use of Godfrey’s work, with the band’s name illuminated in flashing colours while the house lights dim and focus is drawn to the performers.
Dani Heron is immediately charming as our protagonist, a woman who lives through and struggles to navigate the aftermath of trauma. Funny and frank in the lighter moments and raw as an exposed nerve in an instant when the character tries and sometimes fails to confront her fears, she is so in tune with the role that I’d expected to see a co-writer credit in the programme. Equally nuanced are the performances of rhythm and lead guitarists Eve De Leon Allen and Anya Pearson, in her acting debut, in their most prominent roles as a polyamorous couple whose affection for each other and for our heroine are palpably heartfelt.
Bassist Rachel Barnes and drummer Sarah Workman round out both the band and the ensemble of actors. Workman’s most notable role is Dean, the teenage love and eventual scorned lover of Heron’s character. The role is one of not only comedic genius (Workman brings a wonderful, slack-jawed energy to this nerdy teen) but who is central in the unfolding drama – speedbumps in the young couples’ relationship gradually set the plot in motion. Barnes, most prominent as a therapist guiding her new patient through sexual re-discovery and learning to process trauma, carries the role off with a calm, steady energy which makes her eventual results all the more believable.
These pitch-perfect performances are aided greatly by the original songs by co-writer and co-musical director (along with Pearson) Lilly Pollard. Her songs are not only fun to listen to, but sound authentically like what the more evolved, self-assured version of Heron’s character might write about these experiences when looking back on them. A crafty, well-calculated choice from Pollard’s musical direction is giving a focus to emotive singing from Heron – while a moment where Eve De Leon Allen takes the lead vocal proves more tonally pleasant, Heron’s voice is affected with a raw edge more reminiscent of the show’s influences. When she pulls way the mic and fills the room with a belted note bordering on a primal scream, the real power of the music and the acting reach a shattering, spectacular climax.
Pollard and her co-writer Joel Samuels (notably the creative team’s only male-identifying member) have crafted a moving and often visceral script. Working with difficult, often deeply upsetting subjects, the pair often seem to be heading for a tired cliché before revealing a familiar-but-refreshing change of pace. When the polyamorous (stated only to be “open” when introduced) entered the story, I worried that this delicately crafted story may be about to fall into dated and hurtful stereotypes, but Pollard and Samuels instead gave real heart and compassion to a couple madly in love but willing to explore the possibility of an addition to their long-lasting relationship. Elsewhere the co-authors prove to be insightful and willing to acknowledge that those we might expect to be cruel in these stories can be the kindest, and vice-versa – a teen pregnancy is met with only support and understanding by her mother, only to see her slut-shamed by a doctor providing care after a miscarriage.
A welcome and thoughtful choice has been made to allow exiting and re-entry to this one-act piece. If you don’t see the advisory online or posted outside the door to The Little, Southwark Playhouse Borough’s smaller performance space, the cast state early on that there are difficult themes ahead, and that anyone who needs to take a moment is free to do so and welcome to re-enter once they feel equipped to. While a more difficult proposition for shows with harder-to-reach exits (Sugar Coat is performed with the audience all faced towards the stage, where recent productions of Smoke and Brilliant Jerks in the same space were performed in the round) this is a bold stride towards accessibility that will likely help many not just to enjoy the show, but to feel comfortable choosing to attend.
Directed with a clear reverence for the empowered, emotionally driven gigs of real-life Riot Grrl bands by Celine Lowenthal, movement around and off the stage more firmly cement the feeling of being at Sugar Coat’s concert. Select moments have a character move into the aisle between blocks of seats, telling us that this moment is genuine and disconnected from the band’s performance without creating too harsh a separation. Lowenthal is also unafraid to allow her leading lady to be feminine, sweet, even cute at times – wisely, she understands that a punk-rock spirit can co-exist and even compliment traditionally feminine presentation.
Thought provoking, eminently enjoyable and a fitting tribute to the women-led bands who influenced not just the music, but the emotional vulnerability on show, Sugar Coat is a stunning blend of genres that will undoubtedly find a loyal audience. Expect laughter, tears, and to walk away deeply frustrated that your new favourite band doesn’t even exist – if I can’t be at their real-life gig, an encore performance of this electrifying play is a welcome alternative!
Sugar Coat plays at Southwark Playhouse Borough until April 22nd.
For tickets and information visit https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/productions/sugar-coat/
Photos by Ali Wright