Orange Tree Theatre, London – until 22 February 2020
The references to the dial-up age of the internet may raise a chuckle but there’s something distinctly chilling about Lucy Prebble’s 2003 play The Sugar Syndrome in its evocation of the darker corners online. In scenes that take places in chatrooms, Elliot Griggs’ lighting illuminates a digital cage around the stage of the Orange Tree and the rumble of Daniel Balfour’s sound design leaves us in little doubt as to the potential danger therein.
Where Prebble delights though, is in wrong-footing her audience. Convicted paedophile Tim may think he’s talking to an 11 year old boy but in actual fact, it’s 17 year old teenage girl Dani on the other end of the modem. And when they meet IRL, a strange kind of friendship develops between the pair as her recovery from being institutionalised for an eating disorder elides with his struggles post-incarceration. A rehabilitation meet-cute, how sweet.
But despite the instant rush, sugar isn’t all that good for you and as we follow the other relationships in her life, we see Dani’s troubles writ large. Her dad has fucked off to who-knows-where and left her mother (an excellent Alexandra Gilbreath) struggling to cope, those anxieties transferred onto a daughter she barely understands but to whom she remains endearingly warm. And Dani has also befriended another chap off t’internet, the awkward Lewis (Ali Barouti) who is into her way more than she’s into him.
Oscar Toeman’s production navigates this tangled web well, particularly through John Hollingworth’s nuanced work as Tim – reserved but quietly funny, you can see something of the appeal for Dani. And Jessica Rhodes excels in her debut here, equal parts teenage brashness and tender insight, the depth of her expressiveness should see her go far. Prebble’s writing may have sharpened over the years but its power is unmistakeable, never more so than in the challenging final scene.