“Ebony Jonelle and George Howard have a genuine chemistry that lifts the whole production”
Matthew Gabrielli’s debut play certainly doesn’t shy away from the relevant and prevalent: Internet trolling, arguments for free speech, and cancel culture are all batted back and forth, changing hands between those that suffer and thrive under the harsh rule of social media, and those that perpetuate the worst of it.
Our troll is a giant papier-mache Punch puppet- unsurprisingly named Mr. Punch. And having spotted a selfie in which our protagonists, Sophie and Jamie, have unintentionally included a floral tribute for a dead child in the background, Mr Punch decides to try and ruin their lives.
There’s both not enough and too much being dealt with in this 90-minute straight-through. Most of the plot is fairly predictable, pointing out the injustice and cruelty of the internet, the very real effect it can have on your life. On the other hand, Gabrielli tries to touch on white privilege, sexism, classism, the ineffectiveness of the police, amongst other things, and there just isn’t time.
The use of puppets definitely adds to the production value, but it takes something away from the story itself. While I understand they facilitate a big reveal of Mr Punch’s true identity, the moment comes far too late, so there isn’t really enough time to understand him- we’re given to acknowledge that he’s a multifaceted person who’s done a lot of good, who has people he loves. But ultimately, he doesn’t seem too dissimilar to his puppet likeness.
All that said, Ebony Jonelle and George Howard have a genuine chemistry that lifts the whole production, and notwithstanding Howard’s Jamie having a slightly unbelievable character arc, their relationship rings true throughout. They’re funny and teasing, and despite being from different backgrounds, they seem to understand each other. Or at least they want to.
Delyth Evans’ stage design amounts to three lots of sheer curtains, a set of double doors, and a couple of stacking boxes. But the simplicity is quite elegant, creating various spaces and atmospheres with very little changed.
There’s a lot that’s good about this production; it’s very close to feeling important and urgent even, but the script wants a thorough going-over.
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.