Review by Rosie Holmes
CW: This play and the review contains references to stillbirth
Jack Thorne’s one-act play is now showing at The Orange Tree Theatre. A powerful and intimate piece, it tells the story of Phil and Alice who are grappling with the emotions of grief. Jack Thorne, whose writing credits include Harry Potter and the Cursed Child as well as Skins, creates a play that conveys loss in a way I have never seen before.
The play is centred round Alice and Phil, who flit between two strands of their story with incredible ease. Those being the happy years of their relationship which began after an encounter at the post office, alongside the harrowing story of the loss of their baby. One half of this story is comedic and witty, whilst the other heart-breaking. Yet somehow, the actors manage to seamlessly alternate between a light-hearted script to a harrowing one of pain.
Originally performed by theatre company, Graee, who place deaf and disabled actors centre stage, this production is being directed by Indiana Lown-Collins, winner of the JMK Award 2022. The play amplifies disabled voices, Katie Erich, who plays Alice is a deaf actor and plays a deaf character, whilst Adam Fenton is also disabled, having developed Tourette’s in his teens. It was in fact a stipulation of writer, Jack Thorne that the character of Alice always be played by a disabled actress. However, disability is not the central theme in this play, just one of its many parts.
The Solid Life Of Sugar Water opens with the couple having awkward sex, Phil asking aloud whether to use one finger or two.’ This then progresses into one of the most powerful yet also uncomfortable scenes in the play. Alice gives birth to their stillborn child whilst Phil simultaneously orgasms for the first time since the loss of their child. This is perhaps the climax of their miscommunication and the frustration the audience feel as we watch them struggle to communicate their true feelings.
The play is captioned on screens circling the 360 degree stage and are cleverly woven into the story, not only making it accessible to deaf audience members but also enhancing Jack Thorne’s powerful script. Perhaps one of the most commanding parts of the play is when the speech stops and Alice uses sign language, creating an extremely intimate moment between herself and the audience. More intimate even, than some of her most vulnerable moments such as the experience of labour or sex with her husband.
The set design is extremely clever. The stage comprises of a double bed, and mirrors and lighting below create a chasm like effect below the bed, perhaps suggesting the void in which Phil and Alice’s marriage is on the verge of falling down. The actors are energetic in their use of space and never seem to be still for long. The pillows on the bed are used regularly as prop pieces. I have never and doubt I ever will see a pillow be used to represent both an erect penis, a large parcel and a guitar. Whilst most of the play is captioned on the surrounding screens, at times these stop as the screens represent a heartbeat. This is a clever tool as it not only signifies the death of their child but presents a metaphor for their relationship. It seems as the play closes, their relationship may too be at the beginning of the end.
Katie Erich and Adam Fenton thrive in the main roles. Adam’s portrayal of Phil is highly likeable and provides some of the funniest moments of the play. Whilst Kate’s Alice is tender, yet forthright, funny, yet distraught. The couple create a portrait of an extremely relatable couple, particularly in some of the more light-hearted moments. Some of the biggest laughs surround the scenes in which both half of the couple have very different thoughts on their shared sexual experiences.
There are parts of the play that are frankly uncomfortable to watch and might even be too much for some. We see every raw detail of Phil and Alice’s emotional and sexual relationship. Perhaps this is the piece’s true power, relationships as we know can be difficult and complicated and not the magical fairy tales’ film and theatre often make us believe them to be. This play therefore provides one of the most honest and breath-taking portrayals of a relationship I have ever seen.
The chemistry between Alice and Phil is quite frankly electric and the two actors manage to convey a deep, deep love between the pair even in times of pain. The actors rarely take their eyes off each other and the love as well as pain between them is palpable. This is testament to the acting delivered in the show as well as India Lown-Collins’ direction.
The Solid Life of Sugar Water is emotional, fierce and raw and will stay with me for a long time. The powerful topics covered in this play are handled with wit and honesty. The acting was sensational, the direction was intelligent and set design was impactful. This is not a performance I will forget any time soon.
The Solid Life of Sugar Water is at Orange Tree Theatre until November 12th. Tickets from https://orangetreetheatre.co.uk/whats-on/the-solid-life-of-sugar-water/
Photos by Ellie Kurttz