Review: Alan Ayckbourn’s Sugar Daddies at Harrogate Theatre

A scene from Sugar Daddies by Alan Ayckbourn.
A scene from Sugar Daddies by Alan Ayckbourn.

Delicate material requires a light touch, and that is what director Robin Herford and his talented cast have given Alan Ayckbourn’s Sugar Daddies at Harrogate Theatre, as it flits entertainingly and unpredictably between shade and light.

Herford is the man responsible for the long running and much celebrated West End production of The Woman in Black (the silly film with Harry Potter munchkin Daniel Radcliffe isn’t a patch on the genuinely terrifying stage show), which amounts to a great deal in itself. He is also, so as to prove his pedigree still further, the actor that has appeared in more Ayckbourn productions than any other, and therefore learnt his craft directly from the great playwright and director himself – and that absorbed skill is patent throughout this production.

This is an unusual play in that it is not among Ayckbourn’s most celebrated. It was, after all, written in 2003; some time after - as ‘The Brigadier’ in Tales From A Long Room so irreverently put it, the ‘plays about people eating sardines in bed’ - that made Ayckbourn a household name. Critics, though they have liked and rated it on the whole, have also expressed slight discomfort with Ayckbourn’s shift from his role in previous plays as detached social observer to that, here, of an impassioned, protective moralist. Which is silly. But, then, critics are.

It is also a slightly erroneous view for critics to take, as you would expect ‘a moralist’ to come down on the side of one or a group of characters – the seemingly innocent, naïve country girl Sasha, used for his own purposes by the initially avuncular yet progressively menacing Uncle Val, for instance – but Ayckbourn is too ambiguous and unpredictable for that.

Ayckbourn is also – and of course the cast and director have a great role to play in this – very funny when he wants to be, and there are a couple of big laughs to be enjoyed among the more subtle ones. Played out in the flat Sasha shares with her neurotic and high maintenance half-sister that the set and lighting designers have executed so adroitly, Sugar Daddies also travels at good pace, with any tension or growing uncertainty locked in tight thanks to satisfyingly dissected scenes that ensure that the audience is not overtaxed nor its concentration unbroken. The choice of music overlapping scene changes throughout, too, is far from consequential and has been carefully selected to enrich both comedy and understated drama.

One interesting thing to note is that there is a slight hint of feminism running through the play, most apparent in the way the play ends (not to give anything away but a great big female spider appears out of nowhere and devours all the weakest men in the audience. Please note: I made this nonsense up). But it is delivered with the light touch we have by that point come to expect of Sugar Daddies and not by means of any ‘Girl Power’ pop idiocy or overwrought bra burning. That, and the fact that the play does not end with a bang of Shakespearean or Greek tragedic proportions, may meet with some dismay from some quarters – and the latter did from me initially – yet if you think about it further, a low-key dénouement is precisely what Sugar Daddies needed and this thoroughly accomplished production gives us.

An excellent piece of theatre that serves as greater evidence of Harrogate Theatre’s resurgence as a producing - in this case in collaboration with Oldham Coliseum - theatre.