Since Lucy Prebble’s award-winning first play premiered in 2003, the drama of online existence has been staged in bigger and ever more original ways, especially at the Royal Court in London, where The Sugar Syndrome was originally directed by Marianne Elliot. Last year, Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner tackled online racism, misogyny and the tyranny of social media with theatrical bravura, while Midnight Movie reflected on the connections and liberations that internet forums can offer those who are ill, isolated or bedridden.
So what does a revival of The Sugar Syndrome offer us today ? On a cosmetic level, a certain noughties nostalgia: the internet here is dial-up and phones are bricklike. Dani, the glib 17-year-old with an eating disorder, talks of herself as a Generation X-er and Lewis, the 22-year-old she occasionally sleeps with, has copies of the NME stashed under his bed.
Dani, played with fast, back-chatting teen intensity by Jessica Rhodes, is mistaken for a boy in a chatroom by Tim, who is in his 30s and has a criminal record for paedophilia. But the central story does not take the predictable turn of predatory grooming. In fact, it is Dani who pushes the boundaries with Tim, flirting and making jokes about his predilection for children, while Tim is played with blank-faced inscrutability by John Hollingworth.
Prebble, who wrote The Sugar Syndrome at the age of 22, captures an acute sense of Dani’s repressed pain and her self-sabotaging preference for a dangerous connection with Tim over her relationship with Lewis (Ali Barouti). Having since established herself as a dramatist working on large, political canvases with plays such as Enron and A Very Expensive Poison, this early work shows signs of Prebble’s extravagant talent for energetic storytelling and kinetic dialogue.
Oscar Toeman’s production conjures an online world that contains all the jeopardy and thrill of anonymous encounters. Rebecca Brower’s set pulses with shining lights when characters meet on the internet and the emptiness at its centre appears like an alluring pool of darkness. By contrast, the lights are turned up in scenes of stark, unvarnished real-life.
But some of the script feels flimsy and off-key, particularly the central relationship; Dani makes psychological comparisons relating the repressed urges of her eating disorder to Tim’s paedophilic desires. The connection feels both forced and over-explained, even if it is part of Dani’s self-delusion that she has found affinity with this older, damaged man. Their “odd couple” intimacy is also unconvincing as they get drunk, dance and eat cake, with Tim confiding in a too resolutely non-judgmental Dani about his masturbatory paedophilic fantasies.
It is the more minor relationship between Dani and her mother, Jan (Alexandra Gilbreath), that emerges as the truer and deeper. Jan is the guilt-ridden but distracted middle-class mum to Dani’s angry, accusing teenager, and there are some sharp, funny and desolate moments between them.
The play shows its age more obliquely in the secondary role the internet takes in the lives of its characters. The chatroom is only an initial meeting point for them and friendships are formed in the physical world, not virtual. Today, these characters would be likely to play out much more of their intimacies on screen and social media. For the main, The Sugar Syndrome feels less like a play about connections in virtual life and more about misconnections in real life.
At the Orange Tree, London, until 22 February.