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A CurtainUp London London Review
Sugar Mummies

Yolanda: Old enough to be your mother. Look there's a pretty girl next to me Talk to her instead.
Sly: Me no wan' the kitten, me wan' the cat.
Sugar Mummies
Javone Prince (Sly), Lynda Bellingham (Maggie) Jason Frederick (Antonio)
(Photo: Nobby Clark)
Tanika Gupta's entertaining new play at the Royal Court, Sugar Mummies is set in the Caribbean where four women from Britain and America are on holiday. The characters are these holiday makers and the army of locals, mostly men, who make their living through this industry. What you won't find reference to in the upmarket package holiday brochures is the sexual agenda of some of these women. That is the extension of the pleasurable massage experience to include orgasmic sex with a handsome, young black man in return for payment. This phenomenon is called sex tourism, has been known for years in relation to men and the brothels and bars of Bangkok. Now women, and older women at that, are in economic control, and this is the subject of a recent film Heading South and of Debbie Tucker Green's play Trade, seen at the Soho earlier this year.

At one level, Sugar Mummies is a relationship play about four women tourists and their sexual partner or boyfriend. Each relationship is different and this is the play's strength, as the opportunity to compare the shifting power dynamic can pleasurably involve the playgoer.

Naomi (Vinette Robinson) is a mixed race girl who, after the death of her English, white mother, is there to find her Jamaican father whom she has never met. Her relationship with wannabe chef Andre (Marcel McCalla) is the most genuine. Naomi's mother's friend, Maggie (Lynda Bellingham) is in her fifties, foul mouthed and sexually predatory. She has a disastrous evening with 17 year old Antonio (Jason Frederick) who just wants to buy his grandmother (who is probably the same age as Maggie) a washing machine. Kitty (Heather Craney) is a teacher in her late thirties who falls for beach bum, chat up artist Sly (Javone Prince). Yolanda (Adjoa Andoh) is a black American, married and vacations each year with Reefie (Victor Romero Evans), the boatman and pimp for the black male sex workers.

Gupta's script has plenty to amuse as we watch the guys make their moves. Our sympathy is fluid as changing scenarios skew our perception as to who is using who in this situation where money is exchanged for sexual performance. There is of course a serious side to all this which is seen in the closure of the first act when Maggie rejected by the impotent boy, avenges her hurt in a parallel with the days of slavery. I found this scene too contrived and inexplicably, it was not played exactly as the author describes in her playtext which might have been more shocking. However it is important to tinge the sweet laughter with bitter herbs, to remember that this may be a disturbing consumerism, reducing men to a meat market and women to shallow exploiters of those in poverty.

Tanika Gupta's dialogue attacks the sexual stereotypes of black men. Each outcome for the five pairings is different and had me discussing Sugar Mummies for days afterwards, the most I ask from any satisfying, modern drama.

Lez Brotherston's set has a curved skyscape with palm trees and tropical sunsets and at night the sea is projected below, dark and compelling. The procession of sun beds and attendants opens the play as each woman makes her entrance onto the white sanded beach in dramatic counterpoint.

Indhu Rubasingham gets some stylish performances from her cast. I particularly liked Javone Prince's shift from the polish of sharp, swaggering hustler to his real character. Funny and painful at the same time! For the first act's final scene to work properly, Lynda Bellingham as Maggie needs to be less likeable, although her speech about Jamaicans as sex objects partially sets this up. But she seems stupid rather than nasty. Finally hurt by rejection, two of Tanika Gupta's women characters show that just beneath the surface lurks a stinking mire of racism. The accents are authentic and there were a few jokes I missed the point of on stage, which those in the audience with a better grounding in Caribbean intonation and dialect grasped.

Written by Tanika Gupta
Directed by Indhu Rubasingham

Starring: Lynda Bellingham, Victor Romero Evans, Adjoa Andoh, Javone Prince
With: Vinette Robinson, Lorna Gayle, Marcel McCalla, Heather Craney, Jason Fredericks
Design: Lez Brotherston
Lighting: Rick Fisher
Sound: Paul Groothuis
Composer: Paul Englishby
Video Design: Mesmer
Running time: Two hours 15 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs to 2nd September 2006
Sugar Mummies continues at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton, Box Office: 01204 520661 from 12th to 16th September 2006, and at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Box Office: 0121 236 4455 from 20th to 23rd September 2006.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 12th August 2006 performance at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs Royal Court Sloane Square, London SW1 (Tube: Sloane Square)
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