Belvoir St Theatre, February 3


It’s desperately sad, fierce, funny, intoxicating and confronting. In other words, Tiny Beautiful Things is desperately full of life. Cheryl Strayed’s book of this name was improbable fodder for a play, and remains so, despite Nia Vardalos’s expert adaptation, and director Lee Lewis having Queensland Theatre’s production humming. It’s also powerful enough to push the reset button on aspects of your emotional life.

Nic Prior and Mandy McElhinney. Top: Angela Nica Sullen, Nic Prior, Mandy McElhinney and Stephen Geronimos. Photos: Brett Boardman.

Strayed used to be an online advice columnist called Sugar, receiving thousands of letters from desperate people, whether about grief, tangled love-lives, addiction or kleptomania. Fifty-six of these letters and replies were compiled into a 2012 book with the subtitle Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. Setting Sugar apart was her preparedness to share her own griefs, vulnerabilities and foibles, her ability to hug people with words, her wisdom in teaching forgiveness and her brutal honesty.

So how do you turn letters into a play? Vardalos gives us snippets of some, and about 15 or 20 in full, with three actors playing the many correspondents, who variously address the audience or Sugar, herself. While she’s replying, Sugar cleans and tidies the detritus cluttering her family home, and if this metaphor for straightening out lives seems too bald, it’s actually oddly compelling and moving – like the play as a whole.

Lewis could have scoured the earth and not found a better Sugar than Mandy McElhinney. The role demands such finely tuned instincts, because were Sugar played just a smile too big or a teardrop too wet, the whole show would melt into a puddle of sentimentality. It does approach this once, after Sugar’s reply to Living Dead Dad (Stephen Geronimos), who cannot recover from losing his 22-year-old only son in a car accident. After she has gently explained that love is bigger than grief, a silence is stretched too long, and one of the play’s most potent moments is diluted, but the flaw is probably directorial.

Mandy McElhinney. Photos: Brett Boardman.

Sugar has arrived in middle age well-tempered by a life. As a toddler, she was forced to use her tiny hands to make her grandfather ejaculate, then she had a tyrannical father, succumbed to drug addiction, suffered a divorce and lost her mother at just 45. McElhinney brilliantly balances the jutting toughness of one who’s survived such adversity with the state-of-grace kindheartedness that is Sugar’s essence.

To a woman who can’t stop stealing, she confides that she, too, once stole things, and that this came to haunt her more than any other of her mistakes and misdemeanours. Eventually, she sat by a lake, plucked a blade of grass for each stolen item, and tossed it into the water while saying, “I am forgiven.”

Angela Nica Sullen and Nic Prior complete the cast, with the latter especially effective at conjuring a rich diversity of characters, including Sugar’s husband, who, when they were courting, showed himself a match for her in emotional wisdom by explaining that she didn’t have to prove she had been broken for him to love her. He can love her for herself.

With no through narrative (other than the house-tidying), the play is more like theatrical cubism, in which we look at multiple facets of emotion – woes, grievances and sources of confusion – simultaneously. Simone Romaniuk’s set, depicting the open-plan downstairs of a suburban home (made less literal by Brady Watkins’ Spartan music), begins as a right old mess of toys, clothes, mugs and food. By the end, you can imagine living there, with your troubles folded, if not ironed.

Until March 2.