Riffing their electric guitars and jumping across the stage, Sugar Coat’s all-female and non-binary cast manages to arouse a sold-out audience and pull them into a Riot Grrrl-themed gig performance. In Southwark Playhouse’s Borough venue, director Celine Lowenthal brings a powerful account of woman’s sexual exploration to life to the sound of pop-punk music inspired by the 90s feminist movement.


Sugar Coat – first of all – does not sugar coat anything. Described as a play about love, loss and lubrication, it takes a plunge into the sexual freedom of an empowered woman. Upon a request to tell a very real and very poignant story, Joel Samuels and Lilly Pollard felt inspired to put pen to paper and share their friend’s experience without holding back.


Its earnest depiction of topics such as teenage pregnancy, rape, depression, and loss gives the show a gripping realness that holds the audience tight in its grip. However, there is a gentleness with which the recollection unfolds on stage. Reminiscent of a one-woman show, Dani Heron uses nothing but her words to share her character’s experiences. And whilst it very much has the air of a biography recital, her lively performance invites the audience to see the story through her eyes. Nothing that happens in her story is expected by the character and the surprise and uncertainty portrayed by Heron can be felt in the last row of the auditorium. 


And of course, there is the punk music which at first intermits the show in short bursts but later leaves space for emotional and melancholic moments experienced by the characters. Inspired by music from the Riot Grrrl movement and lit up by a colour-changing “Sugar Coat” LED sign, the protagonist's story gets an extra kick from a variety of songs interlinking with the play’s emotional arch. Whether the lyrics add to the story, is hard to tell as Southwark Playhouse’s sound system does not accommodate for a punk concert and much of the musical performance of Sugar Coat gets lost to the venue’s acoustics.


However, that does not stop the five actors in their high-energy performance as they share cheeky smiles with each other and radiate positivity and passion. As close as Sugar Coat gets to a one-woman autobiography, Rachel Barnes, Eve de Leon Allen, Anya Pearson and Sarah Workman make it the gig experience that it aims to be. And frankly, one yearns for more interaction between the protagonist in the spotlight and her supporting actors stuck to their musical instruments as every one of their heightened characterisations makes for laughter and mood-lifting.


Sugar Coat gets the audience fired up in their seats as the five aspiring musicians riff away bursting with energy. Headbanging and guitar-licking – Sugar Coat fits it all in – all the while being an emotional and refreshingly earnest show about sex. 


It runs until 22 April.


Review: Shirley Both