Review: Sugarland – Australian Theatre for Young People
It was fantastic to hear that The Arts Centre’s season of Sugarland is being targeted at VCE students, but don’t let that make you think that the play itself is mostly for high school students. Fraser Corfiel and David Page’s debut production of Rachel Coopes and Wayne Blair‘s latest theatrical work is one of those stories of adolescence that engages teenagers both past and present.
Lately, Melbourne has seen quite a few ensemble pieces set in remote regions of Australia, usually ones like this year’s Meeka that have used this type of setting as a source of claustrophobia, dread and potent danger. One of the characters in Sugarland, Erica (played by Xanthe Paige) describes the Northern Territory town of Katherine as a kind of Disneyland, a peaceful place where no one is a stranger and everyone can be trusted. However, Erica has just moved here from Canberra, while our narrator, Nina (Dubs Yunupingu), and her friend, Jimmy (Calen Tassone), have lived here their entire lives. They are two aboriginal teenagers, who both express a strong spiritual connection to their land and their ancestry in some beautifully lyrical monologues, but who would both leave this town in a heartbeat if they could. Nina lives in a single share house with 12 other people, one of them being her mother’s abusive auntie. She wants to live in her own house, where she won’t have to be dodging blows and following orders. She wants to go to a school where she won’t have to suppress her academic skill so she can stay in a class with people who understand her. Jimmy isn’t sure what he wants, he just doesn’t want to be living in Katherine. Since he is currently lacking the attendance to finish school and the work ethic to get into a trade, this seems like an impossible dream, but for Nina, there is the shining prospect of winning the town’s Sing Search competition and the grand prize of $5000. She certainly has the vocal talent to take this contest out, but so might Erica. She already has the means to leave, but unlike Nina, Jimmy, and their naïve young schoolmate, Aaron (Narek Arman), she has also already been to the outside world. She has lived where they all dream of living and has had to move many times throughout her life. She knows that a change of place can only do so much, and that childhood neglect takes its toll no matter how much money you have thrown at you. One of the play’s most powerful scenes shows how Jimmy and Erica, two characters from such vastly different backgrounds, have both ended up in this same damaged, dangerous place in their lives.
This is the tone of about half of the show’s total duration, the remainder is just as affecting but a lot more fun. Every member of the cast, which also features Jonas Thomson as their hapless schoolmate, Charles and Eliza Logan as the long-suffering social worker, all have excellent comedic and timing and dramatic skill, and some even get a chance to show some impressive singing skills. The lighter scenes do well to endear us towards these wonderfully drawn characters whose plights, though they are of many different shapes and sizes, are all very compelling and uniquely revealing. Charles is another hopeful entrant in the competition. He has chosen to sing, of all things, Justin Bieber’s ‘Baby,’ and has no desire to tell this to his sport-obsessed father, unless he wins. He is a simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking example of the pressures placed on young white Australian men, just as Aaron, Jimmy and Nina show us what happens to young Indigenous men and women who have no pressures and no expectations placed on them at all. The singing competition, with all of its pitfalls and inequities, is an excellent narrative device for encapsulating the high hopes and crushing realities of these five young people who all want and deserve the same things, love and freedom, but who, for various reasons, may never come to know them.
Sugarland is truly a theatrical marvel, having managed to engage, educate and consistently entertain young audiences without pandering to them or misrepresenting them. It is an authentic, insightful, and artistically precise piece of storytelling.
Review written by Christian Tsoutsouvas
Review read aloud by Lauren Klein