Theatre reviews: The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar | Me and My Sister Tell Each Other Everything

A new touring production of a Roald Dahl classic blends form and content to magnificent effect, writes Joyce McMillan

David Rankine as Henry Sugar and David Fishley as Michael in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar PIC: Peter Dibdin
David Rankine as Henry Sugar and David Fishley as Michael in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar PIC: Peter Dibdin

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, Perth Theatre *****

Me and My Sister Tell Each Other Everything, Tron Theatre, Glasgow ****

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What a glorious tale for our times is Rob Drummond’s brilliant touring version of Roald Dahl’s The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, co-produced by Perth Theatre, Helen Milne Productions and the Roald Dahl Story Company. Set in a world of 19th century magic and conjuring deeply influenced both by Indian mysticism and by an explosion of new scientific theory, the show fits the intimate atmosphere of Perth Theatre like a glove, with Becky Minto’s gorgeous design, all gold pillars and red velvet drapes, taking up and intensifying the theme.

In this space, under Simon Wilkinson’s glowing saffron and gold light, we watch the unfolding story of a young Indian magician called Imrat Khan who possesses genuine mystical powers, an aggressive British woman doctor eager to build a stellar career on her investigation of his apparent magic, and Henry Sugar, a wealthy man who reads the doctor’s book about Khan and becomes fascinated and eventually changed by the techniques of meditation and insight he finds there.

That’s not all, though; because Drummond’s version, magnificently directed by Ben Harrison, also adds a third layer of narrative, featuring a young 21st century would-be “influencer” called Mary, a restless teen in search of online subscribers, who hears Henry’s story and becomes profoundly changed by it.

Eve Buglass is superb as Mary, lost, funny and wise as only teenagers can be. Johndeep More, Rosalind Sydney and David Rankine turn in flawless performances as Khan, Dr Cartwright and Sugar, with strong support from Dave Fishley as Henry’s friend Michael; and the show captures the moment we live in with an exhilarating accuracy, as we stand between a world where we abuse our gifts in the pursuit of wealth that turns to ashes – or a future in which we learn from the meditative wisdom of the ages how to be in the joy of the moment, and to want less.

The pressures on teenagers and twentysomethings also feature strongly in New Zealand writer Uther Dean’s 2017 play Me and My Sister Tell Each Other Everything, now given its Scottish premiere at the Tron. Over 85 minutes, the play It tells the story of the relationship between younger sister Murph, who has suffered from depression and suicidal impulses from an early age; and “sensible” older sister Jos, who at 25 has achieved some semblance of a “normal” life with career and boyfriend, despite much unspoken grief and rage.

In terms of structure, Dean’s play sometimes seems more like an overstuffed holdall than a carefully packed work of art, racing from serious insights into the hell of suicidal depression, and its profound impact on loved ones, to hilarious memories of childhood showbiz turns in the local hall, luridly remembered dreams and constant fierce alternations of love and hatred between the sisters. As a woman who grew up with two sisters, I found some elements of this more convincing than others; the play arguably overworks its central doll’s house image, and could use a few deft cuts.

What’s undeniable, though, is the stunning quality of Kolbrun Bjort Sigfusdottir’s production, which features the magnificent Anna Russell Martin as Jos and brilliant Moorcroft author Eilidh Loan as Murph; playing out the exhausting but finally life-affirming twists and turns of their drama on a superb set by Jenny Booth, with AV design by Rob Jones – part doll’s house, part nightmare, part much-loved family home.

Henry Sugar is at Perth Theatre until 7 April, the Macrobert, Stirling, 7-10 April, and Eden Court, Inverness, 15-17 April. Me and My Sister is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow until 2 April.

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