Sugar tells the story of one woman’s trip from an ambitious childhood to becoming a Sugar Baby aged 18. For the uninitiated, ‘Sugar Babies’ are usually young women or men who are the recipients of money, allowances and gifts from ‘Sugar Daddies’, rich older men. Mae is our focus, played by Mabel Thomas who also devised the piece. She is a mischievous, cunning character always looking for a way to game the system.
We begin the story on Mae’s 6th birthday, where she is defeated by a cheating male competitor in a game of ‘Dibbit’, the playground’s fiercest competition. She instantly schemes ways to get her own back, and finds herself using her femininity to woo the competitor and win a trip to the Mall of America. From an early age she learns she can use this to her advantage. We see her grow into a young woman and discover her queerness at a slumber party. She has to dip and dive around the pitfalls set by her Conservative neighbours, learning to game the system.
It isn’t long before we dive into the central plot of the play. Mae can’t afford college but soon discovers the website ‘Seeking Arrangement’, where she can use men to her advantage again. Going on a single date with one guy, she earns six hundred dollars. She hatches a plan – go on one date with guys from the website and then block them when she receives her allowance. Soon, things take a dark twist, and Mae learns that the rich male world she has entered is out to game her as much as she is out to game it.
Thomas is a captivating performer, every movement she makes and every word she says is drenched in a glossy film of acerbic irony and bitter sarcasm. Her presentation of Mae is a magnificent achievement, you are completely entranced for the whole 50 minute run time. Mae is fully of snarky one liners and a cynical wit about the world around her, distrusting of everyone and believing in the inner power she has to cheat the system and win. Despite this, she is instantly likeable, and connects with the sense we all have that we deserve better than what we get. From entrepreneurially engraving wood chips in the playground to twisting men to her desire, you’re completed enthralled throughout.
Sugar’s ultimate message is about the crushing nature of society and the way it all makes us play to our desires. It could be interpreted as a piece about one woman’s struggle against the patriarchy, yet also it could be seen as one woman darting around America’s privileged economic makeup to get her own way. Either way, what comes around at the end is a disturbing wake-up call for Mae – she is not the only one out there to game the system. She lands on a point of nihilistic catharsis to try and realise this revelation, but ends up endangering herself further. The world is just as screwed up as each of us are.
Rich men who act as ‘Sugar Daddies’, through Sugar’s lens, are exploiters, but a number of reasons lead women to work in the industry. Not all are sex workers, but some are, and Sugar can also be seen in a way as calling for more protection against abusers in this industry. This is more of a reading of the piece than an implicit message. Part of the magic of this show is it’s nuance in exploring the themes, and Mae is the perfect pilot, flying us through these topics in a smart and stylish way.
Mabel Thomas is an incredible performer on the cusp of a vibrant career. She is one to watch. Her talent and ingenuity is visible both through the performance and creation of this kaleidoscopic look into the lives of young American women in dire straits. Smart, with a coal black sense of humour, you’ll walk away thinking about this one for days.
Recommended Drink: Sugar is an Amaretto Sour – sweet and sugary but with a bitter twist.
Sugar is a daring, rich exploration of the ‘Sugar Baby’ phenomenon, done with care and grace. This is one of the best performed shows you’ll see this Fringe. Catch it at TheSpace @ Surgeons Hall, Theatre 3, 19:05 until August 27th (not on the 14th and 21st). Tickets are available through the EdFringe Box Office.