Open Clasp’s avowed intent is to work with disadvantaged women on the margins of society giving a voice to the often unheard and disregarded. Using a collaborative process and starting from real life testimony they investigate and present to the audience areas of life which most of us would hope to avoid but are very much part of the fabric of modern society. Their play Key Change looked at life in prison for offenders and, more importantly, what had brought them there. Now a new trilogy of short plays looks again at the prison experience but also at life on probation and in a situation of homelessness. The resulting brief series, Sugar, is a salutary watch containing powerful messages unsparingly delivered.
Each of the trilogy is named after its protagonist; they can be watched separately but together they form something more considered and fulfilling and it is probably best to experience them in the suggested order. The first introduces us to Annie late for an appointment at the probation office – this alone is enough to provoke anger and dismay as she knows this will almost certainly be held against her. She then tells her story of how she came to this particular pass in her life in a direct address to the audience. The second features Julie who is in her cell; again, we hear what led her to being in this situation. The third is a little more complex centring, at first, on the experience of Tracy who is in a homeless shelter. As part of her testimony, we are introduced to fellow resident Rita who gradually takes over the narrative and it is her story which comes to dominate. It is probably the most harrowing of the four though there is little light relief to be found in any of them. At the end of the third play there is a brief coda which brings the women together and touchingly shows them as children playing together without, apparently, a care in the world, though the stories have already revealed that this is not universally the case.
This quartet of characters is completely believable and shows four actors (Taja Luegaezor Christian, Paislie Reid, Zoe Lambert and Christina Berriman Dawson) in full command of their material which has been written by Catrina McHugh (also Open Clasp’s Artistic Director) and directed by Laura Lindow. McHugh’s scripts make the similarities between the characters clear – poverty, parental inadequacy, abusive personal relationships, substance addiction, young motherhood and interventions by social services all feature heavily in the lives of these women but the tone is never preachy or moralistic; they are presented as facts of life for many. The question of more importance is how do we, as a society, recognise and “deal with” them when so many are inevitably finding themselves on the margins?
Though it must have been tempting to place the actors in realistic settings I thought it gave the pieces more power and immediacy to use something more clearly stage oriented. There is one multi-purpose setting of grey archways which serves as all three locations and immediately looks like a touring theatre company’s stage set reinforcing the idea that we are watching performed plays rather than a film; subtle lighting states and soundscapes add depth to the performances.
Sugar is not an easy ninety minutes nor is it meant to be. However, Open Clasp have resisted the urge to go full agit-prop with these plays and invested time and thought into developing some characters we can care about. This, in the end, is seen as more important than any overall political “message”. I’m not sure if it is ever intended to run the pieces on television itself so you will need to go into the BBC iPlayer to find them. They are placed under the umbrella of the “Culture In Quarantine” strand and are worth your seeking out.
Production photos by Topher McGrillis
Sugar is available on BBC iPlayer – click here
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