Lucy Prebble’s debut play, The Sugar Syndrome, about two people who meet in an online chat room, premiered at London’s Royal Court 17 years ago. Oscar Toeman’s revival shows us how, in many ways, the internet has changed a lot since dial-up and breeze-block laptops. And, in many ways, it’s hasn’t: it’s still the enabler of porn, grooming, meetings of like-minds – whatever the likes are – and a tool for instant gratification.
Dani starts a conversation with Tim in “Chatarama”. She’s a 17-year-old girl with an eating disorder, but 30-something Tim, a convicted paedophile, thinks she’s an 11-year-old boy. They meet in real life, and reckon they’ve found in each other similarly messed-up soul mates. They think they can solve each other.
None of the characters is particularly likeable – selfish, obsessive, childish – and Prebble seems unsure whether to redeem them or hang them, which makes them difficult to play. But the cast members are mostly up to it: in her debut, Jessica Rhodes gives a committed performance as Dani, while Alexandra Gilbreath as Dani’s mum wonderfully evokes a mix of sympathy and pity as she tries to understand her daughter, and herself.
The play is an interesting mix, intimate in some ways, but impressive in its complexity and reach, presaging Prebble’s later work. For all the slightly forced revelations and expositions, Prebble throws in some wonderful lines and exchanges of unexpected dialogue.
Toeman nicely demarcates the online and real worlds in Rebecca Brower’s sunken set, and his direction hits a high point as it builds to a harrowing final scene.