THE SUGAR SYNDROME Plays the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond until February 22nd. Tickets and Information here

IN BRIEF Challenging debut from Lucy Prebble hits home in sensitive revival with an outstanding lead performance

It’s 2003 and the internet is an unsophisticated, labyrinthine beast – a thrill-ride. But for teenagers, it’s excitingly dangerous, new and thrillingly sexual – where you can create your own online personality. Online Dani is a sharp, flirty, confident person. Offline Dani is a troubled 17 year-old with an eating disorder and a need to ‘fix’ others. But when her fantasy and reality “worlds collide”, things aren’t as binary as they first appeared…

Dani meets ex-teacher Tim in a park playground. It’s a shock for him- he thought she was an 11-year old boy. With the sexual aspect removed, Dani and Tim create something akin to a friendship. She offers a listening ear. He accepts. Freed from expectation, they can talk openly about their issues. When a row results in Dani leaving home, Tim offers her shelter. When a drunken evening ends badly, he pulls back and she reverts.

It is only when confronted by the disturbing evidence of what Tim gets gratification from that a realisation dawns that this is not something she can fix in him. That realisation causes a reassessment of her other relationships, most notably with her mother, resulting in a reconciliation and a hopeful ending.

A top-notch cast is lead by Jessica Rhodes, who is mesmerising in a highly accomplished performance as Dani, a very difficult role, even more impressive as this is her professional debut. Rarely offstage during the play’s two hour running time, she gives an intricate, nuanced, insightful portrayal of this fragile, smart, emotionally-hungry young woman at a turning point in her life. Tim is effectively played by John Hollingworth with a muted, wounded restraint which generates a kind of sympathy – up to a point. Alexandra Gilbreath worries and paces to effect as the discarded wife and mother – we feel for her as time passes by, cruelly diminishing her. Ali Barouti successfully breathes anxious life into young Lewis, another online encounter, whose connection with Dani lasts longer than the one-minute hand-job she “fixes” him with. We feel for him in his lament at why good women go out with bad men.

Lucy Prebble’s debut play from 2003 is an assured treatment of difficult and controversial subjects, artfully blending surprising moments of humour which arise naturally from the characters, giving a real human edge to the script, and it succeeds with aplomb in this timely revival directed with care and understanding by Oscar Toeman.

Sound and lighting add to the production (particularly the nostalgic sound and flickering LED lights of old-fashioned dial-up internet!), and the minimal set is simple and effective.

THE SUGAR SYNDROME is yet another first-class revival from the adventurous management of the Orange Tree. I’m looking forward to the rest of the season.

THE SUGAR SYNDROME Plays the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond until February 22nd. Tickets and Information here

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