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Sugar Mummies

Tanika Gupta
Royal Court Theatre
(2006)

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Sugar Mummies dot.com is a New York website offering ‘quality dating for the older, wealthier women ready to enjoy the company of younger men.’ But Tanika Gupta’s comedy about female sexual tourism is set in Jamaica where every year thousands of English women of all ages, flock to enjoy the love-talking, love-making services of some 200 black gigolos, the ‘rastitutes’ of Negril beach.

As Lynda Bellingham’s lewd and cynical Maggie neatly puts it: “...much bigger than white men — the black bamboo. And it’s not over in two minutes, they can keep going all night.” But in one of the most disturbing scenes, when her teenage lover fails to rise to her demands, she ties him up and cruelly whips him with a palm branch as if Caribbean slavery had never been abolished.

There is no luck either for Kitty (Heather Craney), a shapely Mancunian head teacher, who has fallen in love with Javone Prince’s flattering Sly, as he croons, “You be my sugar mummy an’ I be your coochie daddy.” But while she dreams of bearing his brown-skinned babies, she is soon to find out that his romantic toy boy act is cover for mature years and a mountain shack full of young mouths to feed.

Alas, in pursuit of easy laughs the play often falls back on that feminist trick of mocking the men, including those back home, simply because they are men; and the beach boys are played as improbably sweet-natured, which no doubt comes with the job description but also colours much of their off-duty moments.

Deeper issues like the problems of Caribbean poverty are hinted at in Lorna Gayle’s performance as Angel, an ageing beach masseuse whose estranged husband, living in squalor in another part of the island, is dying of Aids.

She also plays a key role in a developing romantic relationship between her son (Marcel McCalla) who runs a short-order grill bar on the shore and who needs money for cookery school training, and a girl of mixed parentage (Vinette Robinson), a promising young English architect who has come to Jamaica with her Aunt Maggie, not for sex, but in search of her father.

But the standout performances belong to Victor Romero Evans, strongly cast as the shrewd local pimp who knows how to look after his customers, 'the ladies’; and the love of his life, a black New Yorker, stunningly played by tall, sassy Adjoa Andoh, who now regularly deserts her husband for the pleasures she can find only on the sandy shore of Negril bay.

Indhu Rubasingham’s production keeps the scenes flowing swiftly across two-hours 15 minutes, thanks in part to a clever setting by Lez Brotherston which uses blue sky video images of palm trees projected on a cyclorama above the action, plus a small boat on a pivoted revolve.

Downstage the beach is a sand-filled space, which requires the front row seats to remain empty in case of spillage during the brief fight scene. But that short sharp tussle with a machete, like the rest of the play, is neither quite as dark nor as dangerous as this drama of sexual tourism would seem to promise.

Reviewer: John Thaxter