The Solid Life of Sugar Water at Orange Tree Theatre: inclusive and succinctly powerful
It begins with sex - awkward, unwashed, grudging sex. A couple share their inner thoughts with the surrounding audience while trying to restoke intimacy post-pregnancy. Phil (Adam Fenton) is gauche and selfish; Alice (Katie Erich) is patronising but brutally enthusiastic. They mime their actions from opposite ends of a bed. She looks like she’s kneading dough. He critiques her body in graphic and frankly unchivalrous terms. The encounter is messy, inconclusive and hilarious.
From here Jack Thorne’s succinctly powerful one-act play opens up. We learn that one and possibly both characters are disabled, track back over their perfectly imperfect courtship and cohabitation, and realise early on that their baby was stillborn. A full production of this portrait of grief, love and exasperation was Indiana Lown-Collins’s prize for winning the JMK Award for young directors, named for the promising James Menzies Kitchen, who died at 28. She does the play and her two performers proud.
The prolific Thorne, who wrote the This is England TV series with Shane Meadows, penned the Jodie Comer/Stephen Graham Covid drama Help, and adapted Harry Potter for the stage, penned this 75-minute piece in 2015 for Graeae, the company that places Deaf and disabled performers at the heart of its practice. Alice (like Erich) is Deaf, something Phil finds exotic and alluring. It’s not stated explicitly that Phil is disabled but Fenton has Tourette’s and his tics fit the character.
Disability isn’t the core of the story, just another colour in the palette. The characters aren’t measured against an ableist world but against each other. Alice mocks Phil’s ropey attempt at sign language. Phil derides her music collection (but then, he likes Dire Straits). They are both complex, and not entirely likeable.
Erich is high-handed as Alice in the scenes that look back at the couple dating, wrenching in her loss, quietly moving in a late monologue that is signed rather than spoken. Fenton – who should be cast as Matt Smith’s dissipated brother in something ASAP - lays out all of Phil’s flaws alongside his boyish charm. The actor won one of twelve £10,000 Evening Standard/TikTok Future Theatre Fund bursaries during lockdown in 2021, and boy, did he deserve it.
Lown-Collins and designer Ica Niemz enhance the play’s inclusive spirit. Even in an in-the-round theatre like the Orange Tree the audience can feel detached, but here we’re enlisted and complicit. “Creative captioning” involves surtitle screens mounted above the stalls on all four sides, on which dialogue unscrolls, overlaps and expands like a concrete poem, and sometimes morphs into a foetal cardiac pulse.
The central event of the play is harrowing, and there are necessary content warnings for those who have experienced anything similar. But writing this directly afterwards, what I mostly remember is the snark and warmth of the characters and the tender last moments. Thorne never ceases to stimulate and entertain, though the male perspective dominates too much at times. The actors are terrific. I look forward to seeing what Lown-Collins does next.
Orange Tree Theatre, to November 12; orangetreetheatre.co.uk