INTERVIEW: Lilly Pollard & Celine Lowenthal talks Sugar Coat
CW/TW: Sexual assault, Miscarriage, references to Sexism
The feminist pop-punk hit Sugar Coat comes to Southwark Playhouse this spring. A live music play about love, loss and lubrication, this powerful gig theatre show confronts sex and sexuality in a brutally funny true story about trauma and recovery.
Performed by an all female and non-binary band, we follow one woman’s coming-of-age journey, spanning across eight years of sexual highs and lows, with sprinklings of 90s nostalgia and an unashamedly queer and feminist call to arms.
From the producers of Fringe First winning Bobby & Amy, Sugar Coat is written by singer-songwriter Lilly Pollard (as featured on BBC Music Introducing) and award-winning playwright Joel Samuels (Fever Pitch), with co-Musical Direction from Anya Pearson of the British punk band, Dream Nails.
Celine Lowenthal (Pecs) directs the five strong cast: Rachel Barnes (Manic Street Creature, Paines Plough; Ladhood, BBC), Eve De Leon Allen (Doctor Who, BBC), Dani Heron (Peter Gynt, National Theatre), Anya Pearson and Sarah Workman (Girls Don’t Play Guitar, Liverpool Royal Court).
I got to speak to Lilly Pollard (composer and co musical director) and Celine Lowenthal (director) of Sugar Coat to find out more about why it's so important.
What is Sugar Coat about?
Sugar Coat is an award winning gig theatre show about love, loss and lubrication. Based on a true story and pop-punk feminism.
Lilly: In a word: SEX. The highs and lows of sex and sexuality set to a big pop-punk
soundtrack of original music.
Celine: Sugar Coat is about pain, pleasure, joy, and music, all wrapped up in one delicious gig theatre bundle.
What is the key message you are aiming to get over to the audience? and what is your target audience?
Celine: I hope the show encourages our audiences to take full ownership of their bodies, and lives, and also feel the real wisdom of going with the flow - life is full of surprises, good and bad! It throws up lots of questions about how to find light in the darkness, and all the unexpected places happiness can be found. I’d love it to reach young queer or questioning people, who might feel encouraged by our protagonist’s joyous odyssey for her sense of self. It’s also definitely for fans of 90s riot grrl and pop punk bands like Le Tigre and Letters to Cleo, and anyone who has experienced trauma and difficulty, and emerged out the other side, still brave, still vulnerable.
Lilly: For me, it’s a message of sexual empowerment with a healthy dose of THERE IS NO “NORMAL” thrown in. On paper… our target audience is queer, punk-loving women and non-binary people between the ages of 16 - 35, and I’d love this show to make these audiences feel seen and celebrated. But really, I want our show to be able to entertain and educate a multitude of audiences from all walks of life. Ultimately, it should be engaging, spark conversation and by the end have everyone on their feet singing along.
How important is it that Sugar Coat is told?
Celine: Very! There are so many aspects of this story that I have literally never seen talked about in a public forum or piece of art in such a frank way before. Vaginismus, sexual assault, therapy, miscarriage, the trauma of being in a terrible punk band at school… I have genuinely learnt so much from it, and it is so timely - so many things it discusses are literally in the news daily! We don’t talk about women’s bodies and what happens to them nearly enough, and we deserve to know more, and speak more, without shame.
What was your inspiration behind the music and the storyline? and what is the central theme in the show?
Lilly: The show is based on a true story, and it follows the trajectory of one woman’s coming-of-age journey over 8 years. It begins somewhere in the late 90s - so this set the tone for the music, which is inspired by 90s Riot Grrrl punk bands like Bikini Kill, Veruca Salt and Sleater Kinney.
What do you think makes Sugar Coat such a unique production? and how Do you think the show will stand out?
Lilly: I describe Sugar Coat as: “imagine you’re at a gig and the lead singer has gone rogue and started to tell you her story, and then the band join in and help her do it…” This interplay between story and gig makes the show feel more live and more playful than a traditional musical. The music acts like a soundtrack to a film, picking up on the tone of a moment, rather than carrying on the narrative (like in a traditional musical), and I think this helps to make the show stand out. And, of course, watching five female and non-binary musicians having the greatest time, playing lots of big, noisy, punky tunes feels exciting and
Celine: What makes Sugar Coat unique for me is the love with which it has been made. We really love this show, and each other, and we’ve really taken care of everyone involved. We hope our audience feel that - the love. Because we love them too!
What was it like having an all female and non-binary cast? and what is it like directing actor-musicians?
Celine: It’s incredible. I’ve been lucky enough in my theatre life to work with many ensembles that were all-female and non-binary (or, as they say in sex education podcast Come As You Are, ‘ABCD’ - i.e. anyone but cis dudes), and honestly the main benefit is the absence of problems that can arise in other contexts. There’s a shared understanding, the conversation is starting from a different point, and no one is expending energy fighting the obstacles that arise from sexism. It’s a gift. And as for actor-musicians, it’s heaven. Just heaven.
The sheer talent on this stage! I am blown away by our cast every day. Their creativity just shines through, and I feel very privileged to witness it. Actor-musicians forever!
How are rehearsals going? And is there anything you have taken away in the rehearsal process?
Celine: It’s a fascinating thing, rehearsing a show that first took place pre-pandemic. The world is different, we are different. That’s given us a really fresh take on the work. In our rehearsals, the people come first, and we are having a blast. We tackle challenges as a group, and there’s a strong sense of solidarity in the rehearsal room. It’s been a joy
Lilly: Rehearsals are going really well thank you. I am astounded every single day by how incredibly talented this cast is, and can’t believe how lucky I am to be working with them all. We’re making sure the rehearsal room feels really collaborative, so there’s lots of experimentation, silliness and joy every day.
Who was your 90s icon? And what would this show mean to your younger self if they could have seen this show?
Lilly: Not quite on brand for the show, but my 90s icon 100% was/is the Spice Girls. If my younger self could have seen this show, I think she’d want to immediately form a pop-punk band.
Celine: Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A queer icon, a witch, a nerd. And when she turned evil… wow. Also Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre. If you haven’t seen ‘The Punk Singer’, watch it now! And for my younger self, honestly how important pleasure is in sex, and how normal and empowering it is for women to seek and enjoy sex. And that there’s no one way to be a woman, or a person. Different is good. Different is beautiful.
What is your favourite thing about the show?
Celine: The music!! It is honestly a highlight of my life to get to be inside the creation of a show with music of this calibre in it. I go home singing the songs every day. I love them. I am singer-songwriter Lilly Pollard’s biggest fan.
Describe Sugar Coat in one sentence?
Celine: A wild and wonderful ride, full of sex, joy, love, and music!
Lilly: An accessibly radical story confronting sex and sexuality, told by a joyfully rowdy all female and non-binary pop-punk band.
Sugar Coat charts the story of a woman who has no idea how she’s supposed to navigate this sexually confusing modern world, and she is not the only one: around 300,000 women in the UK suffer from Vaginismus, an estimated 1 in 5 pregnancies in end in miscarriage, and ethical non- monogamous relationships are at an all-time high. Sugar coat is winner of the OFFComm 2020 Award, and Show of the Week (VAULT Festival) and an UNTAPPED finalist, Sugar Coat is an uplifting and liberating show about puberty, sex, and reclaiming your body.
The show contains graphic sexual content, loud music and unapologetically bad-ass feminism.
Sugar coat plays at the Southwark Playhouse, from Wednesday 29th March – Saturday 22nd April 2023.