Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics


Sarah McDonald Hughes and Curtis Cole
The Octagon Theatre
The Octagon Theatre, Bolton
02 March 2018 to 10 March 2018

The Octagon National Prize celebrates new and original writing for the stage, and this year entrants were asked to submit duologues. Sherbet, by Sarah McDonald Hughes and Curtis Cole, is the first of the winning entrants so it would be really embarrassing if it turned out to be a dud.  Thankfully this dark psychological study of descent and redemption is of a high quality.

The odds are stacked against Nathan (Curtis Cole) and his older sister Jade (Sarah McDonald Hughes) from birth. After the death of their younger brother, their addict mother commits suicide leaving the children to be raised within the care system. Nathan, young for his years, likes the wish-fulfilment aspect of being raised by a strict Christian, but Jade, who sees herself as street-wise, prefers to seek favours from an older man, not realising that she is being exploited. Sherbet follows the siblings through vandalism, imprisonment, drug addiction and growing mental illness, until Jade makes a revelation that changes everything.

The term duologue suggests a basic approach in which the characters, in seeming to hold a conversation, actually address their remarks to the audience.  Rather than take such a static approach, director Elizabeth Newman sets an edgy, uneasy atmosphere suitable for a thriller. The set reflects the harsh environment in which the siblings are raised – a cold, metallic platform, with props being taken from bin-bags. Scene changes are highlighted with stark piano and industrial music that adds to the sense of unease.

Although the script by McDonald Hughes and Cole is unflinching in its depiction of the harsh life of the siblings, Sherbet never descends into the exploitative ‘misery porn’ genre. While Jade’s problems might arise from her social background, Nathan’s are more psychological in origin. The story is strong and gripping; while it is possible to guess one of the twists, the revelation of the true nature of the relationship between Jade and her older lover is a complete surprise and leaves a very cold feeling in the stomach.

The authors also deliver a pair of fine performances. McDonald Hughes makes Jade a study in self-deception, convincing herself that she has some control over her life and turning to alcohol and drugs to numb the growing awareness of how she is exploited. Cole takes Nathan from a not-too-bright but loving child through a cocky jailbird/drug dealer into full mental illness. The scene revealing the extent of Nathan’s illness is deeply disturbing.

Sherbet has set a high standard for the other duologues in the Octagon National Prize and whetted the appetite for the second play – Katherine Smith’s All I See Is You – that is to be staged at the theatre from 6th to 14th April 2018.


Reviewer: David Cunningham