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Set largely in a less than luxurious New York apartment, the production follows Sugar (portrayed by Tanner Max Efinger), a trans woman with tales of drug use, decadence and death to tell.

Drug use, decadence and death

Offbeat Festival, Oxford, is 50 shows in seven days. Here Sam Bennett reviews one of its offerings – High As Sugar
50 shows. 7 days. The heart of Oxford.

"Don’t go anywhere…just freeze,"

As Let It Be, a musical about the most famous band of all time, played at the New Theatre, a stone’s throws away at Burton Taylor Studio the life of the lesser known Holly Woodlawn was serving as the inspiration for High As Sugar at Offbeat.

 

Set largely in a less than luxurious New York apartment, the production follows Sugar (portrayed by Tanner Max Efinger), a trans woman with tales of drug use, decadence and death to tell.

The character is based on Holly Woodlawn, recognised for her appearances in the Andy Warhol films Trash and Women in Revolt, and one of the subjects in Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ – “plucked her eyebrowns on the way, shaved her legs and then he was a she”. (A reference to this can be seen in the opening of High As Sugar, where Sugar stands centre stage, foot in a washing up bowl, running a razor up towards her thigh).

The protagonist is accompanied by a pianist, a character in himself, frequently acknowledged by Sugar. Watching you doubt she genuinely has a live-in piano player, but then given the character anything is possible. In any case there is a representation on display here. The musical interludes in the play mirror a life punctuated by music courtesy of parties.

Sugar sings too. It’s not a stunning, pitch perfect vocal we hear from Tanner Max Efinger – doesn’t matter. They’re songs where we should concentrate on the story being told and the evident emotion, and not whether there are bum notes. In fact, the lack of a faultless vocal fits the flawed life presented to us.

A moment of simplicity resonates. For the purpose of a scene in which Sugar asks for money off Andy Warhol, the latter is represented by a can of Campbell’s soup. Sugar places the item on show and follows with a loose shrug-like gesture towards it, as if to suggest ‘whatever, it’ll do, you know what it’s meant to be’, delivering on her ‘unapologetic’ nature we are told about in the programme notes.

It’s a bittersweet end to the night. A desperate Sugar is locked out of her apartment due to late payment and refused entry to the home of her old employer Warhol – a result of her being drunk on set leaving him upset. She resigns to going back to her childhood home in Florida to stay with her mother – who, providing the sweetness, is happy to have her back.

“Just for a while,” Sugar tells her mum over the phone, in a way that makes out she is doing her the favour in coming back when the reality is she has no choice bar sleeping on the street. It’s an attempt to regain the control the character appears to have lost when – in a complete shattering of the fourth wall – she screams at the musician, technicians (who have brought the house lights up before she is done talking) and audience before stripping off item by item to reveal the genitalia she was born with. Ironically, it is this point where as an audience member you find yourself completely under the control of the actor.

We are left with the hope that Sugar will come back to the city that never sleeps. “Don’t go anywhere…just freeze,” she asks of it, marking the end of a simple, brave and emotionally charged show.

 

- Sam Bennett

 

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