Sugar Daddies: World Premiere Reviews
Sugar Daddies (by Michael Billington)
"Alan Ayckbourn is subtly changing as a dramatist. Where once he wrote subversive suburban comedies, he now increasingly writes moral allegories about modern life. His 64th* play is a logical extension of his recent trilogy, Damsels in Distress, in that it offers a timely warning about the dangers of role-playing and pretence.
The basic situation is highly disturbing. Sasha, a naive country mouse living with her half-sister in London, rescues Val, an old man, from a hit-and-run accident. Dressed as Father Christmas, Val turns out to be an ex-villain who once ran a chain of shady clubs. When he showers Sasha with flowers, clothes and expensive treats, she takes everything he has to offer without realising that she is being insidiously corrupted.
Although the play is clearly a fable about the dangers of self-delusion, in which Val and Sasha act out the roles of fairy godfather and princess, it still has the old Ayckbourn comedy. When the arthritic Val tells Sasha's sister that he can't sit down for fear of stiffening up, her look of alarm speaks volumes. And there is a priceless scene when the sister returns home to find that her flat has been given a total makeover, complete with white fur bedroom walls. There is even a classic Ayckbourn party, a recipe for disaster thanks to Sasha's avant-garde cuisine.
But, while the play is sinisterly entertaining, it skirts certain issues. Although the old crook is besotted by Sasha's innocence, he never lays a finger on her or shows a hint of sexual jealously, and having shown Sasha to be excessively trusting, Ayckbourn at the last endows her with a contradictory worldly wisdom. For a play that deals with evil and corruption, it ends just a little too sunnily.
It gains enormously, however, from its central performances. Alison Pargeter, so brilliant in the recent Ayckbourn trilogy, again shows her remarkable comic capacity as well as the hardening of Sasha's soul. The veteran actor Rex Garner combines paternalistic generosity and ugly menace as her sugar daddy. Terence Booth as an ex-cop fighting to save Sasha's soul, and Anna Brecon as her hysterical half-sister, also turn in deft performances under Ayckbourn's direction. But the real fascination lies in watching Ayckbourn's transformation from social observer to impassioned moralist, alarmed at our declining sense of self and loss of personal identity."
(The Guardian, 24 July 2003)
Making A Santa Out Of A Sinner (by Jeremy Kingston)
"The retribution that Alan Ayckbourn dishes out to his bad guys is a telling feature of his serious comedies. Some get away with murder (A Small Family Business), others meet a grotesquely apt end (Man of the Moment). What he shows in his latest play (number 64*) is the likely effect of a bad man's wish to become good.
Good on his own terms, of course. Anyone who has exploited the poor, the defenceless and the frightened in order to carve himself a large fortune is hardly likely to turn over so large a leaf that he embraces Buddhism and gives all his wealth to a charity. But if he does less than this, what chance has he of redemption?
Ayckbourn's bad guy, Val, likes to uses his money to play the Lord Bountiful to Sasha, a sweet lass from Norfolk newly arrived in London. He only asks to see the wonder in her face when she holds the vast bunch of flowers, wears the expensive dress, gazes at the redecoration of her flat. Perhaps this is all he does want.
Ayckbourn keeps us in suspense for most of the play, even when we know that Val is an ex-villain. The big question is, what will the transformation do for the young girl?
We first see Alison Pargeter's Sasha bringing an elderly Val, dressed as Father Christmas, through her front door. This lucky survivor of an accident (if it was an accident) is helped to a chair by this undoubtedly kindly student.
After directing her in his Damsels in Distress plays last year, Ayckbourn created this new role for Pargeter, and at first it looks as though it will be a reprise of her engagingly daffy ingénue characters in the earlier plays. Here is the urgent demeanour again, leaning forward to listen, attentive, thrusting.
But events take a murkier turn. Val (a suave Rex Garner), who likes to be called Uncle Val, is joined by a rival (the hunched Terence Booth as an ex-copper), also keen to protect her, also with a doubtful past - and a pirate's black eye-patch, too.
Now we see Pargeter take us along the trajectory Ayckbourn requires. Her response to compliments becomes tarty. She not only waits for them, she poses in readiness. There is much of the child to her, but she also has the child's straight perception. "You wouldn't know evil if it came up and stared you in the face," says Val, staring into her face. Well, the denouement will prove him right or wrong.
One menacing face to face ends in farce but another is truly shocking. There is much comedy, shrewd observation and, of the cast of five, Pargeter and her protectors are especially good."
(The Times, 24 July 2003)
Sugar Daddies (by Robert Hewison)
"Alan Ayckbourn is the nearest thing we have to a Restoration dramatist. He is more prolific than Farquhar, Vanbrugh, Sheridan, Wycherley and Congreve combined, but his 64th* play does what theirs did: a ripe social comedy that appeals to a well-defined class of theatre-goer hides a more challenging morality. There is even a touch of his predecessors' contrast between the innocence of the country and the corruption of the town in this contemporary encounter between come-to-London Alison Pargeter's broad-spoken, broad-bottomed catering student and Rex Garner's worldly wise "Uncle" Val. Val is over 70 and can give her whatever she wants, but the exchange involves the loss of innocence that is the one thing he prizes. This delicately drawn relationship is disarmingly framed by two farcical characters turned inside out: Anna Breton as everyone's idea of a neurotic television researcher, and Terence Booth as an ex-policeman determined to unmask Uncle Val. That both these apparent caricatures turn out to be truthful characters is a measure of the evening's moral drive. Ayckbourn has done it again."
(Sunday Times, 27 July 2003)
Ayckbourn In A Pinter Wonderland (by Dominic Cavendish)
""We can never really escape who we really are," writes Alan Ayckbourn in the programme notes to the premiere of his 64th* play, describing our tendency to revert swiftly to our old selves whenever we try to become someone else. This reads as an apt account of the playwright himself: Ayckbourn often threatens to delve deep into the dark recesses of human nature, only for his urge to entertain his audience to win out. Like a child toying with a dimmer switch, he dallies with gloom in order to dispel it with artificial brightness.
Sugar Daddies could be a highly unsettling look at relationships between rich men long past the first flush of middle age and women decades younger, and it achieves, to be fair, a certain Pinteresque creepiness at times. But the playwright is interested here in subverting our expectations - and subverting them to ends more sugary than sour.
When Alison Pargeter's Sasha, a good-natured, going on naive Norfolk lass - only two months in London - brings home an old man dressed as Santa after finding him floored by a minor hit and run, all her Christmases come at once. Thanks to "Uncle" Val - an Essex gangster whose bogus identity as an ex-chief superintendent she buys into, along with his apparent altruism - her wardrobe undergoes a deluxe, if ever trashier, transformation. This happens much to the suspicion, jealousy and hysteria of her half-sister flatmate, Chloe, who finally huffs off on finding that their pad has been given a vulgar makeover and warns that payback time will surely arrive.
And we want to know, too: when will the platonic mask slip and Val reveal himself to be a grasping old lecher? But it's actually this cynicism that Ayckbourn is guying: why couldn't there be something noble and non-sexual about the pair's friendship? And if the situation is sullying, isn't that to do with the erosion of personality that Sasha experiences as she strives to live up to a projected ideal of innocence?
If the play's main drawback is that it steers too eagerly towards a safe harbour, it does provoke a surprising deal of thought and a great measure of laughter en route. Ayckbourn - who directs - is such a superb craftsman that though his characterisation sometimes slips into caricature, he holds everything together with thrilling compactness and a constantly sparky wit.
His protégée Pargeter - seen to such eye-opening effect in last year's Damsel in Distress trilogy - rewards Ayckbourn's encouragement with another fine performance, catching just the right mixture of beaming simplicity and latent bumptiousness to render Sasha's guilelessly materialistic nature plausible. Anna Brecon, as the shrill career girl Chloe, has a harder task persuading us that she's much more than a one note media harpy, but arouses affectionate titters on being dumped by text message.
The evening's biggest delights are Rex Garner's inscrutably gentlemanly, highly controlling criminal, and Terence Booth as his long-time adversary, a genuine ex-copper who lives downstairs and keeps a morose, avuncular eye on the pair. There's also great work from Eliza Hunt as Val's past-her-prime floozy companion whose ghastly attempts to curry favour inject some bitterness, bathos and, yes, reality into the livelier than life proceedings."
(Daily Telegraph, 24 July 2003)
Sugar Daddies (by Ian Shuttleworth)
"A number of times in recent years, Alan Ayckbourn's plays have touched at least in passing on adolescent female sexuality and / or older man-younger woman relationships, real or dreamt-of. The most explicit - and uncomfortable - manifestation hitherto has been the failed attempt at schoolgirl self-prostitution in 2001's GamePlan. With Sugar Daddies he finally portrays an actual relationship. Even here, though, he remains a little diffident, going to some lengths to emphasise that twenty-ish student Sasha and septuagenarian ex-pimp and East End godfather Val never consummate their arrangement sexually.
Tonally, the piece never settles in one place. The first half-hour or so consists of set-up (cheekily for a summer premiere, Val is dressed as Santa Claus on his first entrance); later in the opening act, we meet the eye-patch-wearing, growling new downstairs neighbour, Val's would-be nemesis and there are suggestions that this may develop into one of Ayckbourn's very occasional undercover-agent or cops-and-robbers spoofs.
The second act shows the extent to which Sasha, either innocently or willingly, is refashioned as Val's creature, to the point of all but disowning her flatmate and half-sister; then, the way Val begins to take her for granted as a youthful ornament but little more, even while he professes to be championing her. Finally, Sasha simply decides to switch off the dependent sugar-baby persona, ends things with Val and patches them up with sister Chloe, in an affirmative closing movement that bizarrely blends elements of A Doll's House and the likes of Sabrina The Teenage Witch.
Still, even uncertain Ayckbourn is going to be written and directed with an engaging skill that makes it worth watching. Especially so in this case, where I suspect the one thing about which Mr A was certain was that he wanted to create a vehicle for actress Alison, the sidekick in the aforementioned GamePlan and also shone in its sister plays in the Damsels In Distress triptych. The character of Sasha here makes full use of Pargeter's gift for portraying a gaucherie which is at once comical and entrancing, and she deftly and enjoyably carries the evening through its pick 'n' mix selection of moods and registers."
(Financial Times, 24 July 2003)
Sugar Daddies (by Charles Hutchinson)
"If the chance meeting of the country mouse from the Norfolk tea shop and Father Christmas on the streets of London sounds the stuff of a fairytale, then think again.
Alan Ayckbourn's sinister 64th* play is "a cautionary comedy of dark intentions".
In this age of Big Brother, plastic surgery and communication by text messaging, Ayckbourn has seen the tactics of role playing and acting to please, and he doesn't like what he sees.
He detects a rise in self delusion, a diminution of individual identity and a selling-out of the soul, and reveals a hardening distaste for falsehood and pretence in his darkly-amusing morality play.
Dr Faustus meets Cinderella and Pygmalion in the scruffy flat of shrill, unhappy television researcher Chloe Vines (Anna Brecon) and Sasha (Alison Pargeter), the happy-go-lucky half sister from Norfolk, who is the innocent abroad after moving to the capital to study at a North London catering college.
One day Sasha brings home Father Christmas, after rescuing him from a hit-and-run accident. He is Val (Rex Garner), or Uncle Val as he likes to be known, an old man with a generous streak, a dicky heart and a customised Roller. So generous that this sugar daddy pours gift after gift upon his little princess, changing her wardrobe from sloppy to designer label and the flat into a soulless place of white fur-lined walls and glass tops.
Gradually she turns into burnt Cinders under his deceptively corruptive influence, realising in a Damascene moment that their mutual role playing can no longer be sustained.
For Val is not all he seems. Val is a crook with a past in running brothels, as revealed by Sasha's circumspect, hangdog new neighbour with the eye-patch and breathing problem, former serious crime squad officer Ashley Croucher (Terence Booth). Yet Ashley is not above being economical with the personal truth, either.
With Ayckbourn in the role of moral policeman, there is a reactionary air to Sugar Daddies, one that yearns for honesty: the kind of honesty that Ayckbourn so admires in the acting of Alison Pargeter, who has the priceless assets of being natural and naturally funny.
Sasha bemoans that complicated people are more interesting, yet the surprisingly happy ending suggests that Ayckbourn would prefer it were not so.
That said, you sense the play's resolution, like so many peace treaties, is fighting against the tide."
(Yorkshire Evening Press, 24 July 2003)
* The repeated statement that Sugar Daddies was Alan's 64th play rather than his 63rd play was as a result of an incorrect press release from the Stephen Joseph Theatre stating Sugar Daddies was play 64 rather than the correct figure of 63.
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