Please note: This review – like the production itself – discusses stillbirths and the grief and trauma associated with this, as well as themes of a sexual nature. Please take care when reading and click off this article if these subjects are triggering to you.
The Solid Life of Sugar Water is a difficult play, and a difficult watch. First there’s the uncomfortably explicit, NSFW descriptions of sex between couple Alice (Katie Erich) and Phil (Adam Fenton), then there’s the sensitive subject of stillbirth and the grief which comes with it. It’s a devastating flush of emotions, yet even in the round of the Orange Tree Theatre, it still feels one-sided in its narrative and perspective.
An echocardiogram (ECG) line runs through the production. It’s scrawled around the parameters of the bed centre stage, and blips away on the captioning display units placed on all four sides of the square set. It goes on to bluntly represent the loss of the baby, as well as the ebbs and flows of Phil and Alice’s relationship – one which is dynamic in its fluctuation from the individual to the collective.
Thorne’s script tracks the internal monologue of both of them, as well as the occasional exchange made out loud. There’s times where they say the same things from different viewpoints, coming closer together and more uniformed in their dialogue before the intimacy gets too close, feels too raw, feels too soon, and they are apart again. The relationship is, like many other aspects of the play, difficult.
Unfortunately, Thorne’s writing is just as frustrating at times. Phil tells us he tends towards excitement, as if that wasn’t made apparent by his unusual musings on “air magic”, making creaking noises to describe sex and sharing bizarre phrases from his Dad and obsessing over how to pronounce ‘ante-partum’ backwards, instead of focussing on the very real and very serious issue experienced by his wife.
Similarly, Alice tells us she thinks she is not a “nice person”, as she rarely talks about herself and instead affectionately rips into Phil for most of the play. She guides us through the first meet and the subsequent dates, talking about the former with insistent, jarring comments about the ‘package’ Phil is posting as the Post Office not being a metaphor. Her character is enigmatic, and I wonder if there is a moment later on where, in one large outburst, we see lines from her which are about herself. Her character is either making a wider, underdeveloped point in her focus on Phil, or it’s just lazy writing in the form of a female character being unable to have a personality outside the relationship.
This criticism is only strengthened by Alice claiming Phil has “slight OCD” over rearranging photos in height order. It isn’t formally confirmed anywhere else in the play (though Phil and Adam are both neurodivergent, and Alice and Katie are Deaf) but presenting Obsessive Compulsive Disorder through the tired trope of wanting to keep everything organised is exhausting and disappointing, not least when Thorne is famed for championing disability and diversity in his work.
With that being said, actors Erich and Fenton alongside 2022 JMK Award-winning director India Lown-Collins offer a commendable take on the work. Pillows and bedsheets become phallic symbols and imagery for sexual intercourse. After a large portion of the play talking about the other character, Erich gives a powerful, striking performance as Alice in the devastating final scenes, signing her frustrations and then detailing the pain of labour while Fenton’s Phil, contrastingly, explains the joy of sex with emphatic enthusiasm. In this moment, they could not be further apart – the opposites which attracted them to each other now potentially being more repulsive in nature.
With a gentle reframing by Lown-Collins, an additional, aching tragedy could come to the fore here. As we see the fracturing of a relationship following the awful loss of the couple’s baby, there’s hints of animosity displayed towards Phil from an Alice who has never had the chance to express herself, almost always describing emotions and situations through the lens of her partner. A sharp realisation of that from Alice in the final scenes – laying on the bed which has been ripped, moulded, stained and more over the past hour and 45 minutes – could have produced a more powerful, and curiously ambiguous conclusion.
Is it really love that Alice and Phil feel towards one another? A final glance from the latter suggests we can’t say for certain, and that’s as intriguing as it is annoying when it feels like we don’t know much about Alice to even attempt to answer that question. A lot is left unsaid in The Solid Life of Sugar Water and at times, that isn’t really a good thing.
The Solid Life of Sugar Water is now playing at the Orange Tree Theatre until 12 November.
Every performance will include creative captions, while British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted performances will take place on 10 and 12 November.
Audio described performances are scheduled for 26 October, 1 November, 5 November and 10 November.
Relaxed performances will take place on 3 and 8 November, with socially distanced performances running on 1 and 8 November.
Production Images: Ellie Kurttz.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘The Solid Life of Sugar Water’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.