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Edinburgh Fringe 2015

The Solid Life of Sugar Water

Graeae Theatre Company and Theatre Royal Plymouth

Genre: Drama

Venue: Pleasance Dome


Low Down

This beautiful production by Graeae Theatre in collaboration with the Theatre Royal Plymouth is that rare combination of hilarious, honest and heartbreaking. The story jumps around in time, introducing us to Alice and Phil when they have been married for a few years and are having trouble connecting physically and emotionally, then moving back to when they first met and started dating, and everything in between. Alice and Phil have been through a traumatic experience, perhaps the greatest loss of all, but it becomes clear that perhaps they haven’t communicated honestly with each other from the very beginning.


A man and a woman are in bed
The Solid Life of Sugar Water production shot, photo by Patrick Baldwin

As the audience file in, two bodies are asleep in bed, but the bed is upright so we get a bird’s eye view of their restless sleep. They are Alice and Phil, who begin to describe their clumsy attempts to have sex in rather graphic detail, including the smells, tastes and touch. It becomes clear that neither of them have any idea what the other enjoys sexually and their attempts to hide their dislike of certain things has led the other person to believe they enjoy it. This device of duelling monologues, addressing the audience rather than each other, is a clever way of making evident how many of their thoughts aren’t shared with each other and how different their perceptions of the world really are.

They met in a post office when his over-packed box of strange gifts for his brother overseas explodes all over the surrounding people in the queue. Alice is deaf, something that Phil finds “exotic”, and she thinks he is “harmless”, a complete contrast to the difficult relationship she has just come out of. This rom com-esque beginning to their romance belies the difficulty that is to come and makes it even more poignant and distressing when we see where life has taken them. The structure of returning several times to the lovely story of the early days of their courtship, including how they first made love to Dire Straits’ Romeo and Juliet (the song is still in my head!) also gives the audience a much needed break from the intensity of the events of the ‘present day’.

This is a story about communication, or lack thereof. It isn’t just the fact that Alice is deaf and Phil is hearing that causes the communication breakdown. A seemingly insignificant but very telling moment is when Phil believes he is signing “I like you” in a sweet, romantic gesture but it is definitely not BSL or any other sign language that I’ve seen or used. Alice admits to us that she doesn’t know what he is saying, but she never tells him as she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings. Too many events of this nature in any relationship, regardless of what they are to do with and how kind it seems at the time to pretend, mean that eventually there are a minefield of misunderstandings to navigate.

The casting of the actors seems rather mismatched at first, as they have very little chemistry in the early part of the play and they don’t appear to be the ages that the characters are presumably supposed to be (there is a mention at some point of Alice needing to get pregnant before she turns 30 but both actors look much younger than this). In particular, Arthur Hughes certainly doesn’t look old enough to have been married for a few years. However as the piece develops and we see the characters meet and fall in love and then find that love again, the strength of both actors’ fully realised performances removes this doubt.

Graeae is a company which casts D/deaf and disabled actors and ensures all of their productions are accessible. The director makes brilliant use of the visually arresting set as a platform on which to project all of the subtitles. Each character’s dialogue usually appears on their side of the bed, making it clear who is speaking even if the words overlap. The script, by Jack Thorne who recently adapted Let the Right One In for the stage, is clever and will have international appeal.

This is a strong production which isn’t always easy to watch but it is more than worthwhile. It is a highly recommended addition to your Edinburgh Fringe experience.