fri 12/07/2024

The Solid Life of Sugar Water, Orange Tree Theatre review - two-hander gets a punchy refresh | reviews, news & interviews

The Solid Life of Sugar Water, Orange Tree Theatre review - two-hander gets a punchy refresh

The Solid Life of Sugar Water, Orange Tree Theatre review - two-hander gets a punchy refresh

Jack Thorne's wickedly funny play offers plum roles to two riveting disabled actors

Moving: Adam Fenton as Phil and Katie Erich as AliceEllie Kurttz

This is not a play for the squeamish: here be blood and cum and unsavoury descriptions of genitalia, male and female, that make you wonder why humans relish sex so much. And it’s all played out in the close quarters of the small in-the-round space of the Orange Tree.

The set is dominated by a large Tracey Emin-ish unmade bed, on which the two actors play out their past and present. Above the seating, on all four sides, are long panels where a graphic display shows a pulse line that suddenly flatlines. When the dialogue starts, the text is projected here too.

Not that we spend that much time looking up at the panels as the two riveting actors demand our attention. Alice (Katie Erich, pictured below), in baggy sweatpants and a pre-loved sweater, is, yes, sweaty. We feel her physical discomfort before she has said a word; her birth canal is “pretty ripped up”, but she gamely goes through the motions of having sex with her husband Phil (Alex Fenton), a very skinny man in loose-fitting long shorts and tops.

Phil approaches sex with all the enthusiasm of a boy with his first Meccano set, talking us through his latest attempt at pump-priming his wife, what she likes – and doesn’t. She has hopeless nipples, and in foreplay, he admits, “I avoid her vagina”. It’s a borderline brutal way of relating yet that’s not the way it lands. Phil is comically over-explicit, yet there’s an engaging tenderness to his tone, as well. Humour is his lubricant.

When Alice’s irritation begins to boil over, though, the foreplay becomes a tug of war, with a sheet as the rope. The pace quickens, but the session ends in slapstick, failure, apologies and turned backs.

Katie Erich as AliceIt’s only when the narrative then winds back, as it does periodically, to the couple’s first meeting, in a Post Office queue, that Phil casually drops the bombshell that he had no idea Alice was deaf at that point as she was such a good lip-reader. His own physical issues become increasingly apparent: his OCD and hyper-animated state, punctuated with tics and grimaces and shouts of “Tring!” 

The couple, we gradually learn, have experienced – and not yet come to terms with – the sadness of a stillbirth. These are people who find daily communication challenging enough. Phil has tried to learn signing, but not that well. The loss of the baby has shaken the foundations of their marriage, suddenly tied their tongues. Can they power through?  

The production is inventively and confidently directed by Indiana Lown-Collins, winner of the JMK Award for directing and also disabled. She and designer Ica Niemz have taken the constraints of the space and turned them to advantage. The play's intimate narrative focus becomes ours, too, thanks to the space-consuming bed, which seems close enough to touch. I liked the idea, too, of making Alice mark out the floor around it with a flatline. But it’s an inclusive production, rather than claustrophobic, as the writing is so beguiling: mordantly funny, yet pulsing with a hidden pathos. We groan at the grotesqueries, but relish their liveliness too. 

Thorne, himself a onetime sufferer from chronic illness, has here created two indelible roles specifically for disabled actors, and how totally Erich and Fenton inhabit them. Erich gives Alice a blowsy power, a woman in all shades of pain, even when attempting a smile; Fenton’s Phil has a wide grin that constantly flickers and broadens, suggesting a man who isn’t in control of it. He is an elfin clown to Alice’s caged lioness. The impassioned embrace the actors gave each other at curtain call on press night was a clear acknowledgment of the effort each had just made, and was as moving as the play itself. 


The foreplay becomes a tug of war, with a sheet as the rope, but the session ends in slapstick, failure, and apologies


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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