Theatre Review: Sugar Mummies
By Shaun Hutchinson
Presented by London's Royal Court Theatre, Tanika Gupta’s Sugar Mummies is a story that’s been told in different ways before - frustrated women search for affection in exotic climates. Films Shirley Valentine several years ago and North and South - and stage play Trade both from earlier this year explore the same subject.
Having visited Jamaica at the pleasure of The Royal Court Tanika Gupta moves the action to the Caribbean. The tour paid off because the award-winning writer captures the richness of Jamaican language and the hilarious vernacular creativity of the Negril beach hustlers perfectly.
In places poignant and moving, there’s also comedy as the play combines great one-liners with sharply observed dialogue and soap opera style dilemmas. And it’s a pleasure to have a Jamaica themed and set play which moves from the customary farcical and slapstick comedy – which does have its place – to the more serious.
The play is more than a parody of the often vulgar and exploitative relationships between rich women from the developed world and the poverty stricken Jamaican men from whom they seek affection though. This performance also searches for answers to the many questions these controversial unions provoke.
Who is in control – the economically dominant women or the men who exploit their emotional frailty? Equally important is the nature of independence - political and human - as well the myriad forms of economic and cultural domination - and the inevitable impact on human relationships.
As the play explores these dilemmas it reveals that most of us – the apparently dominant and seemingly dominated – hide our secret whilst surviving in a hostile world which routinely presents morally compromising choices.
Sugar Mummies is clearly a woman’s tale. The female characters range from the world-weary but still vulnerable Maggie, [Linda Bellingham] and man hungry Kitty [Heather Craney] to the more sympathetically treated African-American Yolanda [Adjoa Andoh] and mixed heritage Naomi [Vinette Robinson] searching for her own Jamaican heritage.
Linda Bellinghams’s Maggie, in an accomplished and bitter performance - captures the heartache of middle-aged woman perfectly. Experienced but still vulnerable she contrasts the naiveté of Heather Craney’s bottle blond and brash Kitty – a somewhat immature career woman looking for love.
As if to show that not everything is black and white African-American Yolanda – played with an irritating accent by Adjoa Andoh – maintains an annually consummated five year affair with father-figure beach boy Reefie [Victor Romero Evans]. And she’s left a white husband and children at home whilst struggling with her conscience. .
By contrast the male characters are little more than caricature cardboard cut-outs resisting the temptation to make a quick killing in the forlorn hope of maintaining their humanity and integrity. Their dialogue is where most of the comedy comes from – only rarely changing direction from crude locker-room talk to focus on intimate questions of morality and honesty.
And it is in the scenes in which the archetypal beach boy Sly – played by Javone Prince with, confidence and swagger – reveals his own secret does a male character show any depth beyond the pigeonhole into which these characters are often stuck.
The misplaced laughter of the audience in one dramatic scene - as the inevitable breakdown of their holiday romance becomes clear and Sly trades harsh insults with the rejected Kitty - seemed to reflect many unanswered questions.
And maybe that’s where the play’s weakness lies. When the action gets more serious and profound matters of identity, racism and human relationships are unpackaged the balance between comedy and drama is lost.
Author: Tanika Gupta
Director: Indhu Rubasingham
Design: Lez Brotherston
Lighting: Rick Fisher
Sound: Paul Groothuis
Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London