After being recognised as one of Edinburgh’s best shows last summer, Sugar Baby returns to Cardiff on a high. Chapter Arts Centre certainly doesn’t have the glamour and scale of a top-range Fringe venue but, in fairness, this brief three-day run isn’t trying to match that ambience. In fact, it’s the lack of glamour and style that makes this second viewing of the play that much more enjoyable.
The Roundhouse space in Edinburgh was perhaps double in size to the Seligman Theatre, with far greater resources at director Catherine Paskell’s disposal. Paskell took full advantage of them back then, and the resulting production was one lauded as much for its flashy design as it was for its story. With none of the flashiness there to distract, there is more of a microscope on the writing.
The script doesn’t seem to have changed much, thankfully. It’s still laugh-out-loud funny, and Marc is a character so well-fleshed out that he could have been plucked straight from the streets of Fairwater. What becomes clearer upon second viewing is just how much of an unreliable narrator he is. Unrequited romances, local gangsters and talking bronze seals are integral parts of Marc’s story and, on the surface, it’s pretty easy for the audience to work out what is real and fantasy. But do we really have any reason to believe what he’s telling us, beyond the fact that we like him and want to believe him? In the intimacy of the Seligman, with the action so close to the audience, the story feels more far-fetched than usual. Is he at the centre of an extraordinary sequence of events, or is he simply an unemployed and lonely petty criminal who’s lying because he’s too embarrassed to admit that he’s living with his mother?
Alex Griffin-Griffiths is, again, exceptional. It’s a role that offers him so much freedom to play and interact with the audience, and the joy he gets from doing that is infectious. Harris may have written the jokes but its Griffin-Griffiths who makes them. His comic delivery is close to perfect and, thanks again to the smaller scale of this version, the physicality of the performance comes to the fore. Sweat pours down his face through most of the show and he is genuinely exhausted at points, which makes Marc even more endearing to the audience.
It’s always interesting to revisit a production and see how it has improved. In this writer’s opinion, the performance of Sugar Baby in 2017 didn’t need improving yet, despite most changes being circumstantial, this small-scale version of the show is arguably better. There’s also something to be said about the unpolished quality of this production. It’s wonderful to see Welsh theatre on a large scale with all the bells and whistles, but there is also something precious about the DIY mentality of Dirty Protest. Welsh theatre can go to Edinburgh and excite audiences with its sexiness, but we can be ourselves when we’re at home. Watching Sugar Baby at Chapter Arts Centre is watching the Dirty Protest that we admire, and it’s all the better for it.