Soon to be performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Sugar Baby is a one-man-show that straddles the line between drama and storytelling, building its tale against the backdrop of the more deprived areas in Cardiff, with a tongue-in-cheek approach, a penchant for comedy, a modicum of audience engagement and the surreal addition of the statue of a seal somehow come to life. With its story of petty crime, loan sharks, unlikely romance and cannabis cooperatives, and its dry humour, coupled with the more hallucinatory mood offered by the presence of Billy the Seal, the narration is somewhat reminiscent of the works of Irvine Welsh, of Trainspotting fame, albeit with an unique Welsh twist. The humour remains wisely on the surface, allowing the audience to navigate through what is truly a story of attempting to cope in a hostile and deprived environment with a smile, but without ever losing track of the seriousness of the actual predicament the characters are in. This is a clever choice, since it allows for a true connection with the characters and with the story, remaining enjoyable but shying away from the temptation of turning the story into a farce and its narrator into a grotesque.
Grotesque details are used in the narration here and there, and help address what is the most difficult task the writing is faced with: presenting a believable portrait of a handful of well-developed characters within the space of little more than an hour, while having only one narrator to rely on, doubling as the protagonist and voicing all of his interactions with the rest of the imagined cast. Given the short duration of the show, this was by far the hardest part of its development, and it was on average successful, though some of the characters emerge more vividly than others. It is very easy to clearly visualise the main antagonist, loan shark Oggy, or the narrator’s parents; on the other hand, the main female character, Lisa, remains somewhat more generic and, in a sense, blurry around the edges. Still, it is remarkable for an actor to take on a whole cast and find a variety of voices and body languages for them, at times having to stage entire dialogues while swapping constantly between the two (or more) characters involved. The writing engages with the issue in a mature way, choosing to invest more in the development of the characters than that of the plot, which moves along a series of familiar point. This is once again a clever choice: the show is, and perhaps must be given its nature, character-driven, and the plot serves mainly the purpose to explore these people’s minds, their motivations, and their interactions with each other.
Actor Adam Redmore deserves praise for his energetic, rather physical, nuanced interpretation both as protagonist/narrator Marc and in evoking the rest of the play’s cast of characters (seal included). His performance is a tour de force that hardly ever gives him a break, but he manages to channel the voices of all the players in the story in a clear and well-studied way. In a play that makes its audience sit and listen to a single narrator recounting his story, it is all-important for the audience to make a connection with that narrator, and Redmore achieves this easily, making us feel that we know Marc, that we have known him awhile, and that we are genuinely invested in his story and his welfare. At times the show feels like the familiar experience of sitting in a pub with a friend spinning a tall tale of something that has (purportedly) happened to him, suspecting that the tale is to some degree, perhaps a large one, embellished, and enjoying it all the same. It is a simple atmosphere and yet not one easily reproduced in drama, and the fact of successfully bringing it to the stage is perhaps Sugar Baby’s greatest achievement.
The show is a somewhat short, enjoyable experience using the backdrop of a part of working-class Britain that gets less representation on the stage than it perhaps ought to. Its voice is certainly different from most voices heard and contemporary drama, and would be for that alone deserving of attention. Managing to be both engaging and amusing, it navigates most of its difficulties successfully and makes its few imperfections and hiccups more endearing that annoying. Coupled with Redmore’s excellent performance, it certainly makes for an interesting watch.
Chapter, tonight (July 27).