Long ago, before she was a writer and producer on TV's Succession, before she wrote Enron, The Effect or A Very Expensive Poison, Lucy Prebble penned a play about a 17 year-old girl with an eating disorder who meets, and forms a mutually supportive relationship with, a 33 year old paedophile online.
At some levels, The Sugar Syndrome, written in 2003, feels like the debut play it is; it is a bit messy and doesn't quite know where to take some of the ideas it develops. But at another, it is just astonishingly promising and full of courage. Not to mention the authentic voice that Prebble has honed down the years. For all the darkness of its subject matter, Sugar Syndrome is often savagely and sardonically funny.
As an example, take the moment when Dani, disaffected and isolated after being treated in hospital for anorexia, describes the girls she loathes in her new posh school. "Every once in a while, someone would disappear from a class and we were never supposed to ask where they'd gone," she says. "Like Communist Russia," says Tim the paedophile. "Very similar, but with more Landrovers," she shoots back.
This odd couple has met online, in a world which now seems like a historic relic, where connection was made via anonymous chatrooms and a dial-up to the internet. "Do you know who this number is? It's costing a fortune," says her worried and distracted mother Jan (Alexandra Gilbreath). She's also met Lewis (Ali Barouti), a 22 year-old, in this way; but their relationships are played out in the real world not a virtual one. Tim "the chatroom nonce" who thinks she is a young boy, and Lewis who is mainly after sex but develops a stalkerish obsession both in different ways seem to offer Dani opportunities and a freedom she does not find in life, where her unhappy mother wears her out.
The play pivots on two interesting notions, one much more convincingly described than the other. The first – and most satisfying – is the way that body dysmorphia has Dani in its grip; as played, beautifully, by Jessica Rhodes (in her professional debut) she is all nervy energy, constantly tugging at the long sleeves that hide her arms, folding herself into herself in disgust at her own shape, oblivious to her own cleverness and attraction. Her scenes with her mother, full of guilt and accusation, are telling and strong.
Tim is equally shrunk into himself and Prebble's exploration of how evil can lurk beneath the most civilised and gentle of surfaces is portrayed in a performance by John Hollingworth that makes him a man of such tender kindness that the flickers of violence beneath his skin are truly surprising. The idea that he is a danger as well as a victim, is glancingly developed, however, and the denouement, when Dani discovers the full truth of what he is feeling, is unsatisfyingly melodramatic.
The play is, nevertheless given an honourable production by Oscar Toeman. Rebecca Brower's designs fill the online world with enticing bright blue light; the rectangular pit of reality at its centre, in which most of the action takes place, feels drab by comparison. For all its youthful flaws, it's a play that flickers with exhilarating energy, well worth this revival and full of indications about Prebble's consistently challenging career to come.