SUGARLAND, Australian Theatre for Young People at ATYP Studio, 27 August – 13 September 2014, photography by Tracey Schramm: above – Elena Foreman and Dubs Yunupingu; right – Hunter Page-Lochard and Elena Foreman.
A plea to tweet, check in on Facebook and text friends (after the show, of course) sets the tone for the first few minutes of Sugarland. It’s clear we’re in teen territory.
The feeling is reinforced when we meet Aboriginal girl Nina (Dubs Yunupingu), who traces in the red dust of the stage the town of Katherine where she grew up: the pub with blacked-out windows, the most profitable Woollies in Australia (must be because of the bottle-o she reckons) and the hospital where Cadel Evans was born.
This is her Katherine: not the tourist town of glossy brochures, or a version cooked up by do-gooders more intent on creating a good impression than telling the truth.
This is Katherine in all its sweaty, screwed-up, multicultural glory. And it sucks.
Nina is trying to leave home. She has 22 stitches in the back of her skull from where her aunty threw a brick at her and wants out, but she can’t get a place of her own because she’s not officially classified as “homeless”. Waiting for a teacher one day (played by writer Rachael Coopes) to plead her case, she meets Erica (Elena Foreman). Erica is just as troubled as Nina, but because she’s an “RAAF brat” with the crystal clear waters of the air base pool at her disposal, nobody understands why. Nonetheless, they bond over Kanye West and teasing the local boys (Narek Arman and Michael Cameron) and slowly, a friendship is born.
Also troubled is Nina’s “cousin”, Jimmy (Hunter Page-Lochard), a once-promising footballer who needs money to pay his school truancy fines, but most of the time is too busy drinking, “choking” and getting stoned by the local waterhole to bother.
All of them have dreams - of course they do - but they’re vague, unfocused imaginings of being the next Jay Z or Rihanna, and as Jacob Nash’s stark set of red dust and concrete suggests, there’s bugger all in Katherine to sustain such grand illusions.
Instead, they pin their hopes on winning the local Sing Search competition, which at least would take to them to Darwin, into a place of their own and a chance at a future. But Jimmy’s not eligible, and Nina, well she’s too ashamed to even try.
Written after many hours of talking to teenagers while on multiple residencies in the Northern Territory, the hand-on approach of Coopes and her co-writer Wayne Blair shows in the authenticity of the dialogue. In Fraser Corfield and David Page, they have the ideal directors: as artistic director of ATYP, Corfield has the nous and experience to bring the project into fruition, while Page brings the same emotional fluidity to Sugarland as he does to his compositions for Bangarra Dance Company.
The casting is exceptional: as Nina, Dubs Yunupingu is heartbreaking, the sort of serious-minded teen that would excel almost anywhere except for this messed-up place where hopelessness clings to its residents like sweat in the Wet Season. As Jimmy, Hunter Page-Lochard is a complete contrast, a young man for whom anger and resentment bubble close to the surface and can only be kept in check by frequent obliteration. As the quietly intense Erica, Elena Foreman is the perfect foil.
This is theatre for teens, played largely by teens, and the absolute best thing about it is that it doesn’t patronize them. It doesn’t dumb things down, it doesn’t cushion them, and it doesn’t trivialize or worse, blow things up to overwrought proportions.
“Life’s hard, you’ve just got to deal with that,” Nina tells Erica. And so it does.