Graeae Theatre Company presents an often harrowing tale of a cracking relationship in its first major production as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Reviewed by Paul F Cockburn.
The Solid Life of Sugar Water, Jack Thorne’s new play for Graeae Theatre Company and Theatre Royal Plymouth, starts out almost like a romantic comedy, albeit (like a lot of disabled theatre of late) a somewhat dirty-mouthed one!
Our focus is the bed shared by Alice (Genevieve Barr) and Phil (Arthur Hughes), so it’s hardly surprising that the opening scene has the pair not only describing their sexual techniques in quite graphic detail but showing a complete misunderstanding of what each other likes – along with an unwillingness to admit this. The problem is dressed up, at least by Phil, as a generic gender-difference – “Rhythm is less important to girls,” he says – but we soon realise that it’s much more personal than that.
This is clearly a relationship in trouble, which is sad because they’re both presented as being nice people. An initial flashback, when the couple remember the first time they met, also comes across as beguiling rom-com; Phil was in front of Alice in the queue at the local post office, with a huge “supplies” parcel for a brother stuck in foreign climes. So Alice’s initial reaction to Phil was mild annoyance, but she hid it and they ended up having a chat over a coffee. One thing, obviously, led to another; and it’s from here on that Thorne lays down the foundations for the really bad thing that is yet to come, the event, which has arguably broken an already fragile relationship beyond repair.
Alice quickly realises that she likes Phil – even if, as he puts it, he “has the shoulders of a much younger woman.” Phil, meantime, finds her deafness ‘exotic’. Yet, as we progress through their first few dates (and the first time they have sex, to the accompaniment of Dire Straits’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’), Thorne’s script inexorably pushes us towards the very personal disaster, which has befallen them – the stillborn birth of their daughter.
Barr’s and Hughes’ performances, under director Amit Sharma, are at times energetic, engaging and heartbreaking; the pair dig deep into themselves to personify the growing emotional disconnect between the couple, which is most clearly expressed by his memories of their last ‘successful’ sexual encounter and her’s of the birth of their already dead child – presented, side by side on the bed. This prop, incidentally, is erect against the wall, with the actors standing in front of it and behind a duvet, to give the impression that we’re looking down on them from the ceiling. Little is hidden as a result.
It’s not a spoiler to say that there’s no happy ending; that becomes obvious early on, though again in a seemingly innocuous throw-away detail: when Phil shares what he believes to be a romantic phrase in BSL, Alice has no idea what he means, but never told him. That, as we later come to realise, was just one of the many misunderstandings, evasions and deceptions that would undermine their relationship: a message for us all to remember.