It takes a certain kind of person – or at least a person in a certain mental state – to be motivated enough to write to a completely unqualified volunteer columnist asking for help with what, in many cases, is a pivotal life-changing moment. Especially a columnist with no experience of counselling, but substantial unresolved mother issues and a history of drug addiction. Yet somehow the persona of “Sugar”, the real-life columnist in question, became a popular sensation in the US – which then became monetised into a book, a film and now a play.
This is the story of Cheryl Strayed and is the basis of Tiny Beautiful Things, although it’s not really a play – there are no scenes, just a series of letters and replies that cascade (often in layers) across the stage and into the audience. It’s quite a seductive piece – in the same way that those self-help memes that arrive unannounced in our Facebook feeds inspire us to face the day ahead.
At first glance the piece does appear superficially meaningful and brave and raw and full of all those things that we prefer happen to other people rather than to us. And, like those memes, we find a way to attach the message to our own lives, and so we feel we have learned a truth about the way the world works and how we can all learn and grow. So we sit and watch, finding ourselves touched by a series of often quite dangerous platitudes, the greatest of which is ‘you need to forgive to find happiness’, which rings out like some evangelical minister’s sermon with no real context for the lives of the parishioners being preached to. But it sounds great, so heck – take my money.
If you’re not struggling with anything currently yourself, you’re probably going to love this show and remember wistfully how you triumphed over past trials. But, for some people, being given advice like ‘go and look at a Van Gogh to get over being raped’ may be a little unpalatable. Crucially we never get to discover if Sugar’s advice proved helpful or catastrophic and, on several occasions, you do rather wonder what the result of that advice may have been. But, alas, that is not on offer in the work.
Using the visual metaphor of cleaning up the house as these letter writers have their problems cleaned up is rather obvious, but workable. However, the incredibly detailed set with working appliances and multiple spaces, while spectacular in its concept, does rather dwarf the simplicity of the piece. The recurring question of the text is that everyone wants to know who Sugar really is, but despite the detail of her physical life that we are shown, we never really get to drill down into her mental reality beyond her replies. Fair enough – that is the way the show works. And it’s probably because we discover by the conclusion that we are all, in fact, Sugar.
It was hard to resist a Monty Pythonesque cry of ‘I’m not!’ at this moment.
The four performers are generally quite touching as the three letter-writer cast members appeal to Mandy McElhinney’s Sugar for advice. Some of their letters land more effectively than others and there is a nice mix of humour and pathos. As we know, McElhinney has a strong command of both dramatic and comedic styles and is very successful casting in the difficult central role.
The piece has been adapted by Nia Vardalos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame and she certainly knows how to craft a good story to pull at the heartstrings. Most people are going to find this night in the theatre quite heart-warming, touching and uplifting.
It’s always nice to know someone else is having a worse day than us apparently, and the show received a standing ovation on opening night. But those people needing real professional advice on their journey through life may find it a long hour and a half on the uncomfortable Belvoir seats without an interval.
Tiny Beautiful Things
Based on the book by Cheryl Strayed
Conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail and Nia Vardalos
Adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos
Belvoir St Theatre
Director: Lee Lewis
Transfer Director: Daniel Evans
Set and Costume design: Simone Romaniuk
Lighting Design: Bernie Tan-Hayes
Composer/Sound Designer: Brady Watkins
Cast: Mandy McElhinney, Stephen Geronimos, Nic Prior, Angela Nica Sullen
Tiny Beautiful Things will be performed until 2 March 2024