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.
Reviewed on 19th October 2022
by Miriam Sallon
Photography by Ellie Kurttz
Previously reviewed at this venue:
The Straw Chair
Reviewed – 21st April 2022
“There is humanity and tragedy in the piece, but despite the magnificent performances, the emotional punch is too tender”
It is 1735, and life on St Kilda – in the far reaches of the Outer Hebrides – is pretty stark. And everything smells and tastes of fish. It is an abandoned isle, populated by abandoned people. A place where the crashing waves erode the shoreline and, if you let it, the spirit. But not so Lady Grange, the central figure of Sue Glover’s play based on the real-life wife of the eighteenth-century Lord Grange. A Shakespearean mix of King Lear and Miranda, she whips up her own storm that threatens to silence the unrelenting winds that sweep in from all sides of the island.
Lady Grange was exiled by her estranged husband to the Outer Hebrides, on the basis that she was hysterical, drunk, disorderly and uncivilised. In truth she knew too much about her husband; his Jacobite sympathies shrouded by hypocrisy and political pragmatism. Better she go and rage against the storm in isolation, rather than upset his veneered city life.
The turmoil is all internal and the interest promised by the historical facts doesn’t translate entirely successfully here. Anna Short’s sound design evokes the peace of the farmyard rather than the ravaged sentiments of the central character. The first act serves mainly to set the scene, into which Aneas, a bible-clutching minister and his new wife, Isabel come on a mission. Isabel, all innocence and compliance, is initially the antithesis of Lady Grange. What Glover’s writing cleverly reveals, however, is how the two women have more in common than we originally think. Along with Oona, Grange’s maid, the three women are all trapped in their own gender-defying roles of the time.
Siobhan Redmond is a force as the unhinged Grange – sexual and dangerous; one minute syrup and flirtation, the next acid and acrimony. Redmond portrays a Hamlet-like figure: mad at the world rather than mad within one’s head. Rori Hawthorn is equably believable as Isabel; an ember in the shadow of Finlay Bain’s surreptitiously domineering Aneas, yet Hawthorn reveals the flickers of a burning injustice. The flames fanned by Redmond’s powerful performance.
But it takes until the second act for the momentum to really take hold. Jenny Lee, wonderful as the no-nonsense Oona, is drawn into the fold and the play now belongs to the women. Polly Creed’s direction is finally allowed to flourish, particularly as the trio bond over shared whisky and dissatisfaction. Glover’s underlying comments on gender and power are unleashed as the tongues are loosened, while Bain takes a generous back step, yet without relinquishing his masterful portrayal of the steadfast missionary.
“The Straw Chair” is a play that demands attention, although it does take a while to grab it. Its hold on us is tenuous, but if it lapses, we are soon lured back in, with the added help of some plaintive music. As well as commanding the stage, Hawthorn (with co-violinist, Elisabeth Flett) provides a lyrical, pre-recorded underscore. There is humanity and tragedy in the piece, but despite the magnificent performances, the emotional punch is too tender. We want to hear the waves crash, rather than lap, on the rocky Hebridean shoreline.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Carla Joy Evans
The Straw Chair
Finborough Theatre until 14th May
Previously reviewed at this venue: