Tanika Gupta's new play Sugar Mummies has opened at the Royal Court Theatre and runs until 2 September. This comedy-drama looks at female sex tourism in Jamaica - white women (usually older types) going to the islands for easy sex and companionship; the men enjoy the unofficial "pay" they get, in cash or in lieu.
Four women hang around on a beach, lapping up the attention of the young men who buzz around them, lavishing compliments and appreciative looks on the varying qualities of flesh on display. The simple set of sand, a movable jetty and sun loungers is given detail by video projections of sea, sunsets and star-filled night skies - the effect is of a film set with changeable backdrop, fitting for the fantasy world being created by the characters who can make whatever they want of their sexual and financial exchanges.
The play brings to light the complicit and mutual exploitation of these "milk bottles" who turn up looking for love and are open about paying for it, and the men who are more than happy to accept a free meal and a few US dollars for a night or too of escort duties. The whiff of colonialism and discomforting, twisted racism mingles with the scent of suncream and rum and flavours the whole play with an uneasiness about how acceptable this "bit of fun" can be when so many issues are raised and complicated by this new trend in holiday romances.
The evening is slightly too long, attempting to cover too many aspects of this subject. Three ages of womanhood are represented and what each wants: the young woman searching for identity and the father she never knew, the young-ish woman longing for a baby and stability and security to see her through to middle age and the middle-aged woman who wants to feel attractive and desirable and have some fun after years of being strong and independent - and untouched. Alongside this, there is the regular, a black American woman who comes to the island frequently to spend time with her lover, knowing the game and playing it for all its worth.
Among the men, there is the young boy tempted into "rastatution" and what becomes of him during his first job as a "rent-a-dread", the even younger boy who longs to better himself through catering college and the unofficial pimp who pairs the men with women for a cut of the unofficial money that changes hands. Each story gets the minimum of stage-time; combined, they make an enjoyable and thought-provoking play but leaves the audience wondering if we should be feeling more moved or more outraged about one particular point raised. As it is, there are too many points of focus to generate a strong, pointed reaction.
There is a vague comment on AIDS, HIV and STDs affecting the local community due to sex tourism though it comes as an after-thought and feels quite literally tacked-on to the end. This aspect of a broad and meaty subject such as sex tourism deserves more focus and comment that was certainly worth bringing in to the play but could have been dealt with better than through a single character who had to bear his sad story conveniently off-stage.
The cast are all sound and nothing jars or grates in the individual performances. The Jamaican accents among the men are convincing, enjoyable and the outward swagger and glimpses on inner-vulnerability are never overplayed or underused. The women have good, if brief, roles that they seem to enjoy playing - there is a certain relish in Lynda Bellingham's performance in a scene where her sexual frustration is translated into the emasculation of her young man. The episodic structure that leaps between the women's varying relationship dramas does, however, give a soap opera feel to proceedings and affects the performances, with some scenes feeling rather like the racier out-takes from an ITV drama.
Sugar Mummies is a comedy-drama that does nicely as an evening at the theatre while stuck in the city during the summer: all that sun, sex and sea is upliftingly presented as what it is - escape. However, the touch is not exactly too light but rather too slight to do justice to this subject; it barely has time to even refer to the many topics, issues and debates this new kind of sex tourism brings up, and not for want of trying. This is a play for a summer evening but probably not for eternity.
Sugar Mummies is playing at the Royal Court until 2 September. For more information and to book, go to the theatre's website here.