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FringeReview UK 2022

The Solid Life of Sugar Water

Orange Tree Theatre

Genre: Contemporary, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre Richmond


Low Down

Director Indiana Lown-Collins. Designer Ica Niemz, Lighting Designer Jonathan Chan, Sound Designer Oliver Vibrans. Creative Captioner & Projections Designer Sarah Readman, Movement Director Isolte Avila, Intimacy Co-ordinator & Director. Asha Jennings-Grant, BSL Interpreter Deborah McLeod

 Casting Consultant. Christopher Worrall, Access Consultant Laura Guthrie, Costume Supervisor. Rebecca Carpenter. Deputy Stage Manager. Waverley Moran, ASM Rhea Jacques

 Company Stage Manager Jenny Skivens, Technical Director Stuart Burgess, Production Manager Lisa Hood

Till November 12th


How can words so explicit provoke a theatre so delicate? It’s not about a couple grieving their still-born child, with all the attendant horror, writer Jack Thorne says about his 2015 play The Solid Life of Sugar Water now revived at the Orange Tree. It’s how they respond.

Phil (Adam Fenton) and Alice (Katie Erich) relive two strands of their life, its comic-awkward beginning and growing love intercut with the moment of loss, which ultimately fuses with their first night together in a moment of literally breathtaking intensity.

After its Edinburgh Fringe beginnings, and its 2016 National transfer with Deaf and disabled charity Greae, director Indiana Lown-Collins re-imagines the work with the Orange Tree’s in-the-round space: an immersion where Deaf actor Erich and Fenton negotiate the pitfalls and pratfalls of language outside much use of BSL. Alice tells Phil to give up trying. But there are touching moments when BSL’s the best way to talk. There’s a magical communing silence that can only be compared to one in last year’s Strictly with Rose Ayling-Ellis and Giovanni Pernice.

Designer Ica Niemz provides a simple bed with pillows where one comically gets exploded by Alice mimicking the massive box Phil carries at the post-office, occasioning the couple’s meeting. ‘Not a metaphor’ Alice keeps assuring us. Underneath that bed though lighting strips delve the OT cellarage changing colour and ultimately switching off. It’s a light-interfused piece and Jonathan Chan’s often spectral lighting, Oliver Vibrans’ sound heartbeats and Dire Straits’ ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (accompanying sex, Phil’s heaven) and along the gallery strip between stalls and circle creative captioner Sarah Readman surtitles dialogue fading in and out; it also makes the point how indelible, how fragile, words can be.

Thorne’s language flits so sinuously that it’s a pleasure to read too. He often dovetails hilarity with the grace of a couple realising their differences. Taking Alice to the uncut Spartacus at the NFI lasting three-and-a-half hours, when as Alice notes, dates tend to last four, doesn’t allow much face-time. She’s altogether more sophisticated, and Phil, by suggesting she choose their third date (the Tate) isn’t slow on the uptake. He’s first ‘nice’ but importantly ‘unthreatening’ –Alice doesn’t enlarge but easy to guess. Whereas Phil can’t believe he’s with this “gorgeous girl… OK, objectively a seven” and frankly finds her Deafness “rather exotic” something he likes but which Alice feels he’s a bit too keen on. Thorne’s as clear-eyed as he can be, revealing everything about the couple’s attractions and relationship, nothing of what they do, how they live. There’s no distraction.

As for intimacy: “It’s not like riding a bike. Sex. It’s far more complicated.” There’s a delightful interchange where, as Phil narrates, Alice reinforces or more often contradicts him. Sometimes Phil discusses his reluctance to perform some acts whilst Alice, performing another analyses different unpleasant tastes: “Chicken fat, yoghurt past its sell-by date, old washing up liquid.” Yet even this frankness dovetails towards bigger themes.

Like Yellowman, which preceded this production, both actors narrate but not to each other. So that when they come together it underscores those brief epiphanies. The difference though is Thorne’s intercutting, since each actor follows and modifies the other’s statement immediately: the very juxtaposition provides that hug, the structure of assurance and possible renewal.

The Orange Tree’s explored this theme before, but how differently. Lot Vekemans’ Poison in November 2017 traversed the aftermath of a child’s death on a couple, compared in atmosphere to Rosmerholm. This is very different. It’s joyous, funny, visceral, the event’s relived before us, intercutting of five years, not in a funereal real time grave visit. Thorne’s skill in this is very different to his subsequent The End of History (Royal Court, 2019) a straight chronological jump through 20 years of a Labour family’s history.

Erich and Fulton are so wholly inside this piece as re-imagined by JMK-Award winner Lown-Collins (who chose to direct this play) it’s difficult to imagine what it was like before. The intimacy in this space is a given, but how fearlessly and touchingly it’s used. Light, the elegant synergy of captioning set, sound and lighting move from joy to loss literally in a heartbeat, a projected cardiogram; at one grief-stricken moment, Erich inscribes one on the floor. Though props are minimal, they’re used with telling precision.

Thorne and this production move what’s a love and loss narrative through the pitfalls of communing, make it as universal an experience as 75 minutes with two actors can be. The howl and loss of giving birth to a dead child is as devastating as it gets, but Thorne as we’ve seen fuses this moment with an orgasm. What’s achieved is as devastating yet sensitive as it’s possible to get, inches from the audience. What theatre can do, how it changes us, how completely different it is from any other experience, has few examples that come close to this.