High As Sugar was a play of many parts. There were musical numbers, scenes of reminiscent story-telling, conversations with unseen strangers and audience interaction. There was also parts dedicated to chatter with the (mute) pianist, and an onstage breakdown where Tanner Efinger, who plays Sugar and stars in this one-performer (excluding the musician) extravaganza, screamed at the audience while stripping until he was entirely naked.
Through there was overarching narrative present, High As Sugar presented a constant smashing together of styles, tones, emotions that came together to showcase the different aspects of Holly Woodlawn – the transgender Warhol superstar whose life inspired this play. The structure forces the audience to experience our protagonist’s highs and lows and to understand what it must be to be Sugar.
Unfortunately, the production is not perfect. It is a play of many pieces, and some of them do not work so well. However, there is so much value within the play that these parts would benefit from some further development to bring them up to the parts that really did work well, and therefore add merit to the show as a whole.
At the beginning of the show, I felt nervous: the make-up that looked so natural on Woodlawn’s face appeared (as my companion put it), “a bit clownish” on the more masculinely featured Efinger, which made me wonder whether the performance I was about to watch would be a subtle or a cartoonish one. Furthermore, Efinger did not use a softer, more feminised voice for Sugar, and the mania of these first scenes which involved him acting out a sex scene, seemed over-the-top. I was worried I would spend a play watching a man give a camp drag queen performance, rather than a sensitive portrayal of an individual.
I watched a video clip interview with Holly Woodlawn when I got home, to see how the two performances compared. I could see what Efinger was trying to emulate – the hand movements, the shifting speech patterns – but I still felt that in certain moments of ‘mania’, Efinger’s level of energy was often more elevated than that of his inspiration. This might be due to the claustrophobia of the small theatre, where franticness is magnified, and not screened through the medium of film. Still, this sense of scale should be kept in mind: there is a fine line between compellingly overbearing, and a bit alienating.
There was still some fun during some of the manic moments – at times Efinger reminded me of a Dr. Frank-n-Furter from a Brighton production of Rocky Horror Show, at other times Eddie Monsoon from Absolutely Fabulous. However, what I really wanted him to channel was pure Sugar.
And I found that, for much of the play, this is what Efinger delivered. Considering the current conversations about trans representation in the arts, and the subsequent sensitive issues at play when a cis man performs the role of a transwoman, I was anxious for his performance not to tip into burlesque. Ultimately, it did not- he instead created a nuanced character with a great claim to audience sympathy.
At times we were given access to this beautiful, vulnerable, witty and wonderful soul. When Efinger wasn’t acting up, he was suddenly so compelling. His monologue at the funeral of Penny was delivered with much delicacy, warmth, and just the right amount of comedy – and it was, of course, beautifully worded, giving him much credit as the play’s writer. His song about Molly, with its cheery gallows humour and horror that saw the performance switch from morbidly happy-go-lucky to despairing, was captivating, and actually tugged at my heart.
Efinger particularly excelled at story-telling; drawing us closer to his character with the story of her first love, a story that gave such a clear insight into who Sugar really was that one could not help but empathise with her for the rest of the play.
There was a lot to contend with in this hour-long play. Sometimes I felt a bit out of breath watching it, and I wonder if some parts could be pruned to open up more space for the Efinger to further explore specific the parts of Woodlawn that truly fascinate him. I truly believe this play will continue to evolve, as the team behind it are clearly impassioned by their subject. As the script and performance is finessed, it will become an even more immersive experience – one that will swallow its audience, in the same way Sugar’s beloved New York swallows its people.
High as Sugar played at King’s Head Theatre on 20 July 2016. For more information about upcoming productions, see the King’s Head Theatre website.