Belvoir St Theatre, May 9, until June 3


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Kris McQuade as June. Photo: Brett Boardman.

For most of The Sugar House Margo has a mountain ash-sized chip on her shoulder, inducing relentlessly bitchy, aggressive and unforgiving behaviour. Then, in Act Two, after a cancer diagnosis, she suddenly blurts out the line that encapsulates Alana Valentine’s Pyrmont-set play. “Why,” she asks, “are our memories and our sense of belonging so worthless in this city?”

Now there’s a question countless Sydneysiders will have asked themselves as their town has been jackhammered, chain-sawed, razed and twisted beyond recognition, beyond tolerance and well beyond any sense of belonging.

Valentine’s point is more specific, however. In her scheme it has not just been that greed-choked developers, their political cronies and mindless bureaucrats have mangled the place for us all. It is about class and sense of place; about the inner-ring suburbs being sold out from under the workers – with their camaraderie, militancy, values and foibles – who made them.

Not that the playwright has come over misty-eyed with a pink-tinged romanticism about solidarity forever. All three generations of Macreadie women – June, the matriarch (Kris McQuade), her daughter Margo (Sacha Horler) and her granddaughter Narelle (Sheridan Harbridge) are capable of unpleasantness on a heroic scale. By contrast the family’s two men, Sidney (June’s husband – Lex Marinos) and Ollie (June’s son – Josh McConville) are remarkably benign forces (even if Ollie does time for receiving stolen goods).

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Lex Marinos and Kris McQuade. Photo: Brett Boardman.

The play’s title comes from the CSR sugar refinery that once dominated Pyrmont. It was there that Sidney worked in the 1960s; there that 40 years later Narelle is still looking for a trace of her roots amid the high-rise monsters. Like June, the old Pyrmont was rough around the edges with a heart of gold. Like Narelle, the new Pyrmont has some growing up to do.

Valentine’s play is warm-hearted and essentially affectionate, even as it critiques corruption, destruction and social injustice via the misadventures of the Macreadies, Ollie’s girlfriend Jenny (Nikki Shiels) and some minor characters (Marinos). The problem with it is the playwright’s voice periodically intruding to make her points more plainly, as if we might be too thick to pick them up via her characters. Margo’s “sense of belonging” speech earlier contains the observation that what scares June is that her “granddaughter’s newfound middle-class life will just be a thin topsoil over her ugly, ignorant, bad-blood past”. The sentiment is valid, but its expression is not credible from the mouth of the Margo we have come to know and dislike.

Directed by Sarah Goodes (who so recently impressed with The Children), The Sugar House leaves one with a vague frustration that it has been insufficiently refined to extract the more gripping play that lay in this raw material. Therefore it induces uneven performances in which wooden artificiality vies with hard-edged drama, soapy angst and truthful warmth. Standing out above the unevenness is McConville as the likable, accidental rogue, Ollie. He also enjoys a cameo as a tattooist in the play’s funniest scene. Harbridge has some exceptional moments in realising the headstrong Narelle at the ages of eight, 27 and 41. McQuade summons up all the bulldozing strength of June, although her physical acting partially undermines her commanding vocal and facial work. Shiels and Marinos keep their ends up, and meanwhile Horler, lumbered with the toughest role, probably lays on Margo’s vileness too thickly early on, but is superb as the character sickens.

Designer Michael Hankin has evoked a familiar Sydney industrial interior that readily morphs in time as the Macreadies fight to transcend the myth of bad blood.