For a millennia we’ve been trying to dissect Sydney’s mystical rise from humble beginnings to a city of immense fortune, and Alana Valentine’s story following three generations of working-class Pyrmont women, combines the heart of a family story about powerful female relationships, with the compelling nostalgia of a Sydney narrative. Belvoir St Theatre’s production of The Sugar House, written by Alana Valentine, speaks volumes about family, hardship and perseverance, in its setting amidst Sydney’s 1960s evolution from working-class to middle-class prominence.
Valentine says, “The Sugar House takes the audience on a journey through three generations of women in Sydney’s Pyrmont, asking questions about what we as a city owe to the struggles of the past, and how we, as individuals, are shaped by the fears, pain and hope of our families”.
Third-generation Narelle Macreadie is a hardworking high achiever with working-class roots and a feisty political consciousness that she has inherited from her flawed but admirably resilient grandmother. Played by Sheridan Harbridge, Narelle encapsulates all the courageous desperation of a woman who never dares falter despite all the hardships she endures as an undermined working-class woman. Her working-class roots are immediately apparent when Narelle’s grandmother, June Macreadie, played by the stellar Kris McQuade, says of her husband’s sugar refinery co-workers, “Most of this lot can’t read Dahl”, as Narelle reluctantly does her homework, whilst perched on the comfortably intimate setting of her grandmother’s dining table.
However, perhaps more detrimental is the corrupt justice system Narelle’s family confronts. The character of Narelle’s grandfather, Sid Macreadie despairs, “When you grow up poor, you realise it’s the exact same thing as being guilty”. As such, the “crook cops” and flawed justice system which threaten Narelle’s working-class family, guiltily but necessarily remind us of the often despairing working-class origins of the prosperous Sydney many of us take for granted today.
Macreadie family matriarch, June, is repeatedly haunted by the past ghosts of her estranged family’s criminal engagement, which she anxiously refers to as her “bad blood” – reflective of poor people’s paralysing experiences navigating Sydney’s deceitfully class-biased 1960s criminal justice system. June cries, “I grew up with it…grew up with it, ran away from it, and now I find that it’s been hiding in my clothes or in my hair or in my shoes”, pointing to a self-conscious paranoia that also accounts for some of the unresolved demons that plague Narelle’s family.
The Macreadie’s family complications are more than just “poor people” problems however. Whilst June’s sacrificing of a more honest and nurturing relationship with her daughter, Margo, stems from her residing fear and resentment for her working-class origins, her failures also speak to a universal experience of navigating the complexity of family relationships. Valentine says,
“I hope people will enjoy watching this family as a way to reflect on the dynamics, challenges and alliances in their own, that they might leave the theatre talking about how the generations before us worked to get us to where we are today”.
Narelle and her grandmother’s conflicting approaches to challenging the criminal justice system’s inequity, is reflective of the generational divides that often strain family relationships. Whilst June perceives upward mobility as her means of reforming the criminal justice system, Narelle despises the upper-class environment that she perceives as responsible for such injustice in the first place.
Narelle’s mother Margo alternatively channels her frustrations into a self-loathing that adopts a more hopeless attitude to her working-class condition. Despite their conflicting philosophies, all three women’s rage for the unjust system that cripples them in differing ways, points to a shared socio-political consciousness. They fight and say utterly hurtful things, but their undying commitment to one another, demonstrates an unconditional love that reminds us of our own simultaneously tormenting and soul-nourishing family experience. June says, “Narelle, my love for you is the only thing that lets me breathe”, and this quite aptly summarises The Sugar House. Ultimately, The Sugar House is a play about the human capacity for undying love and wilful perseverance in the face of immense pain and suffering.
The Sugar House will be showing in Belvoir St Theatre until June 3rd , so get in quick before this evocative production ends. For more information on The Sugar House, and to grab tickets, visit https://belvoir.com.au/productions/the-sugar-house/