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Review: Tiny Beautiful Things at Belvoir

Review. by Carly Fisher

Having read Nia Vardalos’ script of Tiny Beautiful Things years ago, I have to admit, this was one of the plays I was most excited to see across the Main Stage seasons in Sydney in 2024. Based on Cheryl Strayed’s New York Times bestseller by the same title, this self help style book may not necessarily be something that most readers would have thought instantly to bring to the stage, but luckily, Vardalos did. And so, with a literal powerhouse team in Strayed and Vardalos, the story of anonymous columnist Sugar was made ready for the stage. 

Rounding out this strong female team, Director Lee Lewis (Artistic Director of Queensland Theatre Company) orchestrates this production with a light hand, making the movement around the stage feel as natural and ritualistic as possible whilst simultaneously embedding each moment of the show with a careful sense of symbolism. There is a softness that comes with this sense of the familiar that is interesting to watch and gives action to what, in the wrong directorial hands, could be quite a stagnant play. 

Because despite the powerhouse team behind it, the script is ultimately not the easiest one to stage - none of the characters talk directly to each other, a lot of what is said out loud really is what is meant to be being typed through Sugar’s letter writing, and there really is no direct impetus to move around or interact with others through this script, without layering additional meaning upon it. There are certainly plenty of plays that have fallen trap to this in the past; that terrible sense of knowing that all the ‘extra’ means the show is being overplayed in a pursuit to entertain. This production could have easily fallen into this trap, and perhaps, at times, it does, but overall, there is such consideration in each action and each interaction that the audience is quick to suspend their disbelief to support the talented cast as they navigate this challenging piece. 

The skill of Lewis comes through in the very fact that to a good majority of audiences, this script would most likely not have looked all that challenging. And for this, a large congratulations must be given to the entire team - it’s some feat pull off such a hard and heavy script and make it look easy and relatively light. 

Mandy McElhinney’s performance in the lead role of Sugar is well considered and clearly it is a role that McElhinney is willing to dig deep for which is always a pleasure to watch. Listening to McElhinney speak at the Q&A after the performance I attended, the work that has gone into this character and the emotional rollercoaster of playing her is immense. What was particularly interesting to me was how McElhinney spoke of the all illusive fourth wall which is somewhat non existent in this production as characters look out and deliver directly into the audience, and yet simultaneously is stronger than ever; there is no question that we are not in this house with her. Its unquestionably a challenge for an actor and McElhinney achieves it. 

Nic Prior, Stephen Geronimos and Angela Nica Sullen round out the cast as they take on all of those who write in to Dear Sugar. Each transform into a great number of characters, some clearly with storylines that play on their heart strings even more than others. All four cast members deliver raw and authentic performances that allow for the emotional complexities of the script to shine through. 

Simone Romaniuk’s set and costume design work wonders in using the black box corner space. Sullen’s costume is a total standout - simple and yet striking.

As a Director myself, I love props and naturalistic set that give the actors things to work with, especially for a script like this, but I can’t help but wonder if perhaps Romaniuk and Lewis haven’t overfilled the space with just a few too many of these elements. Whilst I loved the early uses of the kitchen utensils and the elements that reminded us that this home is clearly lived in, there ended up being such a heavy reliance on these props that it grew tiresome. 

It’s not an easy script to stage, as mentioned, and I think that the team has done a wonderful job in brining it to life, but I don’t think this was as strong a MainStage theatre piece as I was anticipating. Certainly enjoyable, groundbreaking, no. 

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