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The Sugar Wife review: Siobhán Cullen and Chris Walley star in elegant revival of drama loaded with moral quandaries

Annabelle Comyn stages professional rendering of well-made play in which affluent Dublin couple are challenged by arrival of two visitors

The Sugar Wife: Siobhán Cullen and Chris Walley in the Abbey Theatre production of Elizabeth Kuti's play. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

The Sugar Wife

Abbey Theatre, Dublin

Writing, in this newspaper, about Elizabeth Kuti’s didactic drama on its premiere, in 2005, Fintan O’Toole noted similarities to the work of George Bernard Shaw. No argument there. The Sugar Wife (whose merry poster could hardly be more misleading) is certainly loaded with political and moral quandaries. There are also touches of George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell – attempts to dig under the hypocrisies of Victorian life. Indeed, Annabelle Comyn’s elegant new revival for the Abbey reminds us of the compromises consumers still make within an inherently unequal capitalist structure.

No Irish enthusiast for almond buns will need to be told which venerable Dublin business acts as an inspiration. Samuel Tewkley, a Quaker who runs a tea and coffee importer with premises on South Great George’s Street, is planning to move into oriental cafes that will run along co-operative principles. While he frets over finding space for incoming stocks of sugar, Hannah, his wife, visits the destitute and syphilitic in the Liberties.

The couple have their differences – Hannah has yet to become pregnant – but they seem to be existing in tolerable equilibrium when, this being a play, visitors arrive to disturb the scales. Hannah is keen for Sarah Worth, a freed American slave, and her companion Alfred Darby to stay while they lecture in the city. Samuel is less enthused – “an African at the supper table!” he sighs – but is eventually won over. The encounter ends up rattling all Hannah’s certainties.

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The four principals form a two-by-two matrix of contrasting philosophies. Hannah, played with brittle grace by Siobhán Cullen, struggles with the tortures that come with a not-always-comforting religious faith. As events progress, it becomes clearer that Samuel, for whom Peter Gaynor finds a modern business-lounge brio, views ethical challenges as an exercise in cold calculation. “Perhaps the good may outweigh the harm,” he says.


Chris Walley, best known from the TV comedy The Young Offenders, makes a pompous – if often perceptive – prig of the campaigner and photographer Alfred Darby. A late suggestion that he trades in “self-important claptrap” is not too wide of the mark.

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Sarah Worth, whom Tierra Porter allows no unsteadiness, is the unsentimental constant at the centre of all this moral mathematics. In contrast, Hannah is the variable whose core beliefs fall foul of mounting revelations and betrayals. The character scarcely seems the same person in later moments of carnal transcendence.

The Sugar Wife: Tierra Porter. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

Paul O’Mahony’s design is – no accident, I’m sure – a model of Quaker restraint. Neat wooden shelving to the rear rises as the second act reaches its catastrophe. Paul Keogan’s lighting, keeping with the aesthetic, forms elegant shadows from the simple furniture. Maybe the piece could profit from a little more wit. The final release doesn’t quite compensate for a stark opening hour.

But this remains a professional rendering of a well-made play that still has much to tell us about who suffers to put sugar in your pantry (and, by extension, copper in your mobile phone). Local trivia nerds will surely enjoy noting that the action begins and ends in the space that is now the Irish Film Institute.

The Sugar Wife runs at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until Saturday, July 20th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist