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Tiny Beautiful Things

Tiny Beautiful Things
Script: Nia Varlados
Director: Lee Lewis
Belvoir Street Theatre
February 1 – March 2, 2024

The audience reaction to Tiny Beautiful Things was rapt attention throughout and rapturous applause at the close. This moving and life-affirming performance based on Cheryl Strayed’s best-seller and adapted for theatre by Nia Varlados comes at a time when many are struggling to find consolation or hope in dark and confusing times.

The original book subtitled Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar is a collection of essays Strayed anthologised from her “Dear Sugar” advice column, and for which, like her play’s protagonist, she received no payment. Perhaps shielded by anonymity the letter-writers are unguarded, raw and baffled by their own emotions, as Sugar (Mandy McElhinney) is as honest, compassionate and self-revelatory in her answers. While as such there is no traditional story arc, there is momentum as Sugar, also shielded by her anonymity, unfolds piece by piece her own story revealing why she might have chosen to take on the role of agony aunt.

She tells us she hasn’t the time. The intelligent set (Simone Romaniuk) with its household clutter allowing her to perform chores as she talks, establishes the mundane chaos of her domestic world, and in addition there is the pressure of having to write that second book. However, the way McElhinney plods down the stairs on entry, tries to tidy up, fills the washing machine signals why, when she becomes an agony aunt, she opts to give advice out of her not-so-perfect life experience. She needs her own self-help course as much as her letter writers need her to respond.

The choice to embody the letter-writers also provides its own momentum as they weave, like their stories, between each other, entreating, accusing, challenging and touching Sugar. “Not-buying-it” and “Still-not-buying-it” (a delightful Angela Nica Sullen) brings comedic charm to her complaint that Sugar’s advice is contradictory. As a young man confused over girlfriends, Nic Prior is almost in knots until Sugar moves up close with her hilarious and trenchant (not to be missed) advice.

Sexy Santa (Stephen Geronimos) relaxes into a chair sharing an intimate second with Sugar as she eases his doubts about sexual roleplaying. Later when he appears as a grieving father, so traumatised by the loss of his 22-year-old son as a result of another’s negligence, and can only entrust his feelings to dot points, Sugar listens from the landing overhead. It is the only time she is separate from her letter-writers and in addition she is in the dark. How to accept? How to forgive others? How to forgive oneself? How to move on? What is her advice to those who suffer insupportable loss?

Finding loveliness in small things is rewarding but can it give consolation for loss and grief? McElhinney, whose performance is outstanding in a role difficult to bring with authenticity, makes it a reality, touching the audience’s beating heart. Listen as Sugar tells the story of a child’s red dress and of a moment on a bus that brought her healing.

Well-conceived with a blessedly strong directorial vision, an astonishingly moving protagonist, and a talented support cast plus careful attention to detail in lighting and sound – for instance, the cat Sugar forgot to feed – Tiny Beautiful Things should be top on your list of to-sees.

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