Review: The Sugar Syndrome, Orange Tree Theatre

Back in the early days of the internet, people seemed a lot more scared of it; I vividly remember being warned by my Year 5 teachers that anything I posted on a chatroom, no matter how anonymous I felt, would be there forever and would probably be traceable back to me. We were taught about online safety with an air of caution, but that never stopped us. We became reckless 17 year olds swerving through Omegle chat rooms and subreddits with abandon, doling out life advice to people much older than us, flirting with strangers, streaming movies on dodgy sites and doing just about everything we were warned not to. The internet gave us a taste of anonymity, and in anonymity, there’s honesty. When you feel anonymous, you can control who people think you are and you can do pretty much whatever you like. Who amongst us can truthfully say they haven’t lied when asked ‘ASL?’ at least once?

It’s this kind of honesty that Lucy Prebble’s debut play, The Sugar Syndrome, is about. It follows the story of Dani (played by Jessica Rhodes), a troubled 17-year-old girl with a history of eating disorders whose parents’ marriage is disintegrating around her. Trying to regain a sense of power in her own life, she entertains herself by flitting in online chat rooms, pretending to be people she’s not, until it lands her in an unlikely friendship with Tim (John Hollingworth), a registered paedophile. It’s a twisted little coming of age story for the online generation as much as it is a cautionary tale about how honesty does not always mean safety. As a former troubled teenager who grew up online, looking for some form of control over their life, it’s at times hard to watch this wayward, naive girl walk straight into the jaws of death and out again, but I love it.

The chemistry between Rhodes and Hollingworth is fantastic; so much of Oscar Toeman’s direction seems to follow the patterns of binge and purge – Rhodes presence onstage is constantly shifting between delighting in her newfound power in these bizarre online friendships, and resenting them. The level of control and tension in both Toeman’s direction and Chi-San Howard’s movement is never dropped, it never slips, violently swinging from static, half frozen conversations in children’s playgrounds to gleefully twirling in Tim’s living room, cake crumbs and discarded pizza crusts flying everywhere around them.

Rebecca Brower’s design of the production also compliments the bleakness of Dani’s world beautifully; it is simple, with just two square trails of LED’s forming an invisible box between the floor and ceiling, surrounding a lowered pit. Everything that happens face to face takes place on the lower stage, and every online conversation happens circling it, raised above, like the characters become a heightened version of themselves when free of the constraints of place and time. It allows them to circle one another like hungry vultures, always kept apart by this gulf between them. 

The internet is difficult to represent onstage, and I was concerned that the online portions might have been updated to try to make it relatable for a younger audience who grew up with Snapchat instead of Chatroulette, but I’m pleased to see that Prebble’s script hasn’t been tampered with; it doesn’t need it.

Regardless of the updates in forums, the things we do on the internet and the people we pretend to be remain the same. The Sugar Syndrome tells a story which is an important one to be reminded of in 2020. Even though most of us have moved on from haunting anonymous chat rooms, we still air our dirty laundry online because it briefly makes us feel better. We still form deep connections with people we don’t really know. We still post our problems and our deepest, darkest thoughts on sites like Twitter or Reddit like they’re a confessional. Prebble’s warning remains as relevant as ever; “You can’t delete anything, not completely.” 

The Sugar Syndrome is playing the Orange Tree Theatre until 22 February. For more information and tickets, visit the Orange Tree Theatre website.