Review: Sugar Coat, Southwark Playhouse

A much-welcome return for Sugar Coat and its bracing honesty about sex and sexuality is a huge hit at Southwark Playhouse

“We are going to tell you a story about a woman”

As if more proof were needed about the enduring importance of the VAULT Festival, Lilly Pollard and Joel Samuels’ Sugar Coat rocks up and rocks out at Southwark Playhouse. Sneaking in at 2020’s VAULT, just before the first lockdown hit, I was a huge fan of the marriage of gig-play and scorching story, so to see it return in an expanded form was a real delight. And it has lost none of its pop-punk energy, its raw edges still present as it offers up a bracingly frank tale of sex and sexuality for a young woman coming of age in the late 1990s. Make no mistake though, it is as cheek-stingingly relevant to this day and age as anything we’ve ever seen in a theatre.

The space is taken up by a cracking all female and non-binary band – Rachel Barnes, Eve de leon Allen, Dani Heron, Anya Pearson and Sarah Workman – with frontwoman Heron leading us through 8 hugely formative years for our main character. It’s a tale interspersed with Riot Grrrl-inspired songs, which play off so much teen angst but also allow raw emotion to be evoked as the advent of sexual maturity coincides with the brutal realities of a misogynistic world. Check out the content warnings as you enter, for there’s some seriously heavy stuff here but the beauty of Celine Lowenthal’s production is that it never lets you wear that weight for too long.

There’s something extraordinary – and it really shouldn’t be so – in Sugar Coat’s exploration of modern sexuality, in the calmness and conviction with which it depicts what society too often deems unconventional. Stepping outside of the heteronormative sphere is no small feat for anyone, anywhere, and the importance of positive reinforcement should never be underestimated – it gladdened my heart that there were no guffaws at a certain moment here. What is also particularly bracing is how the show deals with consent and how our understanding thereof isn’t necessarily hard and fast, it can evolve and be shaped by circumstance and experience.

Our protagonist scoffs at the notion of consent on first contact, laughing at her nervous boyfriend’s attempts to ensure she’s comfortable. But when that choice is violently taken away from her after an assault, it is only through the re-examination of what consent means, and can enable, that allows her to finally start to unlock the damage from that trauma and reclaim her sexuality. It might not seem much but it is blisteringly effective in its presentation and to my mind, ought to be essential viewing for high school PSHE classes. Hell, I’d even go as far to say that Macbeth should be given a rest for a couple of years as Sugar Coat should be on the drama curriculum as well.

Running time: 80 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Ali Wright
Sugar Coat is booking at Southwark Playhouse until 22nd April

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