THE SOLID LIFE OF SUGAR WATER at the Orange Tree Theatre
“Both Katie Erich and Adam Fenton are immaculately cast. Initially seeming a strange match, they grow in strength as a couple before our very eyes”
In the programme, before any cast information or plot summary, Dr Michelle Tolfrey talks us through how best to support a friend who has lost a baby. Because of course, it’s such a fragile, awful situation in which, as she says, “you feel terrified of every word you say.” And despite the frequency of the tragedy in this country (director India Lown-Collins says that there were 2,597 stillbirths in the UK in 2021) we don’t really talk about it, because it feels so impossible to begin the conversation.
In this case, it begins with the least sexy sex scene- “Neither of us has washed in weeks”- both in thick knits and woolly socks, and using pillows and bed sheets to demonstrate physical intimacy, despite being only centimetres away from each other. One might easily mistake this for a comedy.
But this awkward, silly scene continues, spliced throughout, first in the telling of how Alice and Phil met, through their courting, to the first years of marriage, and finally to the pregnancy, and its premature termination. Suddenly this sex scene is not so funny, and the reason it’s not sexy is also the reason that despite how horribly awkward and seemingly unpleasant it appears to be, they insist on carrying on. Because at some point, they have to try to carry on.
I’m sorry I’ve told you the whole plot, but it doesn’t really matter. You already know where this is going as soon as you hear the subject, and ultimately it becomes a matter of degrees of tragedy: After something so awful happening to a young couple, can they make it through together?
Both Katie Erich and Adam Fenton are immaculately cast. Initially seeming a strange match, they grow in strength as a couple before our very eyes. Fenton’s enthusiasm and earnestness counters Erich’s bold forthrightness, and both are unafraid to show their innards without warranting much explanation. In fact, this is a theme of Jack Thorne’s play, that we are so entirely within the heart of the tragedy that lengthy explanation is superfluous.
Both leads have disabilities, but this is only worth mentioning because it’s near entirely irrelevant, except to say that director Indiana Lown-Collins has humbled the West End in their lack of inclusivity, showing how utterly immaterial disability is to quality of performance.
Ica Niemz’ design isn’t wholly unexpected, mostly taken up by a big bed that is made and unmade throughout. But it feels completely fitting for a story that, despite taking place largely in other rooms- hospital, cinema, gallery, post office- is always circling the marital bed.
Thorne has found a way to speak the unspeakable, with so much humour and humanity, my heart still hurts thinking about it the next morning.
“Michele Lee has created great characters and a compelling story”
Rice is Michele Lee’s enterprising two hander about women of colour trapped in the heirarchical (and blinkered) world of male dominated business in Australia. It has just opened at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. It’s a co-production between the Orange Tree and the Actors Touring Company, directed by Matthew Xia. Despite the best efforts of all concerned, Rice is a play with a brilliant premise that doesn’t quite meet its promise.
Lee, who is Hmong-Australian, wanted to create a play that gave two actresses of colour a chance to play multiple roles—roles of “versatility and virtuosity and range.” In creating Nisha, (played by Zainab Hasan) an ambitious young executive hoping to rise in the Golden Fields rice company of Melbourne, and pitting her against the older Yvette (Sarah Lam), a cleaner of Chinese ancestry at the same company, Lee creates a situation fraught with cross cultural tensions both within and without these women’s lives. Hasan does not only play Nisha, an Australian of West Bengali ancestry, but shifts into a variety of roles, including Sheree, Yvette’s troubled daughter, and the white (and very privileged) son of David Egan—a man who is threatening her daughter with a prison sentence. Lam takes on an equally dazzling range of roles, including Tom Budd, an executive at Nisha’s company with whom Nisha has a brief and ill-judged affair; Graeme Hartley, a management “guru”, and Gretel Patel—who brings Nisha’s dreams of advancement to a crashing fall during a disastrous business trip to India.
The story of Rice is quite simple: Nisha and Yvette meet in Nisha’s office where she has been working long hours. Nisha is unhappy with Yvette’s refusal to clean her workspace to her liking. Yvette has very definite ideas about what she should be cleaning. But this clash between powerful personalities is about to become irrelevant in company politics—the Golden Fields company has just hired a management “guru” who is slashing and burning every budget he can find. Thrown together in mutual misery in a series of after business hours encounters, the women become friends. They bond over food, naturally—both Yvette’s home cooked Chinese dishes, and Nisha’s concern over her happy go lucky boyfriend’s food truck and his “khaki rolls.”
Two actresses, no matter how experienced or talented—as Lam and Hasan are—cannot quite pull off the range of roles in Rice, although dialect coach Catherine Weate has done sterling work with all the accents. It’s hard for the audience to keep track of all the characters that cross this bright, white stage in ninety five minutes of playing time. It’s to Lee’s credit that she has created such interesting and varied roles—it would be great to see a cast playing each role with a single actor. Similarly, the change of scenes in Rice would benefit from changes of scenery. Changing the lighting (again, even in the talented hands of Bethany Gupwell, the lighting designer) doesn’t quite do it.
A play with such a varied cast and complex settings (the scenes shift from Melbourne, Australia to Delhi, India) is a lot to pull off successfully in a small theatre in the round. The intimacy of the Orange Tree stage should work well in a two hander, but in this case, the set design is unnecessarily cluttered with a desk. This makes playing in the round quite tricky—every time someone sits down at that desk, the space is transformed from four into three sides, and the audience seated on the fourth side behind the desk have to grapple with the backs (or, at best, the profiles) of the performers. This happens too often not to be an unwelcome distraction. But the overwhelming feeling that remains after the conclusion of this production of Rice—is that this might not be a piece for the theatre. Perhaps the story would show to best advantage as an Australian indie film—the kind that has made Australian film making famous.
In Rice, Michele Lee has created great characters and a compelling story. But it needs the right environment to show to best advantage. Put together a bigger cast in the right medium—and this could be a classic.