Theatre Review: Sugar Daddies - Harrogate Theatre ✭✭✭✭

Sugar Daddies
Harrogate Theatre

Review by James Eaglesfield

Alan Ayckbourn is the master of presenting a simple, normal world; a calm pond in which he then throws a pebble in to so we can see the effects of the ripples – and in which there is often a stronger undercurrent at play. That is certainly true of Sugar Daddies, currently appearing at Harrogate Theatre, which has been produced by the North Yorkshire venue in collaboration with Oldham Coliseum.

Approaching its tenth birthday, Sugar Daddies is the tale of the naïve, those who are not who they purport to be and how these two can combine to corrupt. As young student Sasha, new to London from Norfolk, commits an innocent act of goodwill (if you can’t help an elderly gent dressed as Santa, who can you help?) she is unaware of the world she is stepping in to as, behind his charm and seeming well meaning intentions, this Santa has a past. As ‘Uncle Val’ showers his young saviour with gifts and trips to the opera, his grip begins to tighten and, though his intentions are outwardly good, concerns are raised by Sasha’s sister and, more particularly, the ex-policeman with one eye who lives downstairs. Is Sasha’s Santa who he claims to be or is she losing a little more of herself every time she accepts another present from her bittersweet sugar daddy? And just why do those that upset her suddenly come a cropper? Maybe it’s all coincidence. Or maybe not… 

This is not a laugh-a-minute pun fest of a comedy, instead it offers a gentle style, gradually developing the characters before picking up the pace. It isn’t really until the introduction of Ashely, the neighbour from downstairs, that proceedings gather some momentum and the main thrust of the story and more comic aspects are revealed. But there is humour throughout, and it is of the none-offensive type which means that it can be enjoyed by most – you can even take your granny to this one.

The acting company is perfectly cast. As Sasha, Sarah Vezmar presents wonderfully naïve qualities and glides nicely from jean clad catering student to her over-the-hill suitor’s glamorous plaything. Maeve Larkin as the sister is suitably neurotic as she tries to balance the stresses of work with the repeated let downs of her not-so-romantic relationship. Heather Phoenix’s cameo as ex-working girl but full time lush Charmaine is exquisitely over the top. Basely brash, she explodes on to stage to give Sasha a glimpse of what the future may have in store, before crashing her way off. As Ashley, Christopher Wilkinson portrays a basically kind hearted man but a man who is consumed by his mission to see Val behind bars, and he displays the two strands impeccably. The lion share of praise though is reserved for Paul Webster’s Uncle Val as he sweeps from the vulnerability of an old man to the dark-hearted, coldness of a long in the tooth criminal; he has you both liking him and fearing him all at the same time in a wonderfully judged and measured performance.

Whilst this production may be the result of the combined forces of Harrogate and Oldham, there is also the slightly visable stamp of ‘made in Scarborough’ too. Director Robin Herford and Designer Michael Holt, whose names people will recognise for their work with the ever scary and ever popular stage production of Woman In Black, both have long associations with the seaside town in which Ayckbourn resides and works. This link can only be for the benefit of the production which feels connected to its writer and is very much presented in a style similar to his own – played straight, allowing the humour to come out naturally with no reliance on gimmicks or trickery. Not a bad thing at all.

There are moments when Sugar Daddies shows its age – a young girl without a mobile phone and an inability to decode the strange language that is text speak seems unrealistic now in a way it didn’t back in 2003 – but generally it is maturing well. Like most of Ayckbourn’s work, if you just want to enjoy the ripples on the surface then you will have a superbly enjoyable night out, but for those that want to look and think a bit harder, those undercurrents are ready to pull you in.

4 stars ✭✭✭✭

Sugar Daddies continues at Harrogate Theatre until Saturday 9 March and then at Oldham Coliseum 12 – 30 March.