The Solid Life of Sugar Water is beautifully brutal. Much like a sharp slap to the face, it left me reeling, wounded and a little confused.
The play is seamless; choreographed thoughtfully with every movement and prop serving a purpose. The staging is paired back and deftly clever in its intimacy, drawing the small audience closer with the promise of secrets ready to be divulged. The action – and the narrative – all takes place centred around a young couple’s unmade marital bed, hinting that the story about to unfold will be candid and private. The Studio at Manchester’s Royal Exchange is the ideal place for such an intimate play, it would not pack quite the same punch in a larger space.
When I told my friends I was reviewing a play about a young couple struggling to come to terms with the stillbirth of their first child, the general consensus was that they would find the subject matter too uncomfortable to view. Uncomfortable is an excellent word to describe The Solid Life of Sugar Water but I don’t mean this in a negative way. Rather, it is wonderful in its uncomfortableness. At times the descriptions are so honest and harrowing that it is difficult to keep listening. It is real. This could happen to anyone. This couple could be anyone.
What makes The Solid Life most challenging to watch are the flashback scenes depicting an ordinary couple meeting, falling in love and preparing for the birth of their first child. These are interspersed with brutal depictions of childbirth and loss, and the benefit of hindsight distorts the treasured memories (“I think he did it to get away from me,” Alice laments when recalling Phil’s need to keep testing the route to the hospital). We are given insight into what is about to happen. We are fully away of their fate.
But it’s not all bleak and dreary. There are moments of hilarity with recreations of awkward first kisses and miscommunication that everyone will identify with (on a date, Phil rather touchingly tries to sign to Alice that he likes her, to which she admits that to this day she still has no idea what he was trying to say). And there are frank sexual descriptions where each character boasts that they know just how to satisfy their partner (“She loves this,” Phil says proudly, in response to which Alice remains perplexed by what her husband is trying to achieve) only for the other to admit the shortcomings of their spouse.
Sex plays a huge part in The Solid Life but it is neither gratuitous nor seedy. The language of sex is persistent throughout – sometimes it is funny, sometimes it is filthy, sometimes it is tender – but it is never unnecessary. All of the sex scenes, and there are a few, portray something about Phil and Alice’s relationship. It is the thing that connects, destroys and ultimately heals them.
Produced by Graeae Theatre, which champions the inclusion of deaf and disabled people in the arts, one of the most interesting things about The Solid Life of Sugar Water is how the company uses actors with disabilities but makes no reference to those disabilities in the script. They are suggested, a physical description no more important than the character having brown hair or blue eyes. While Alice is deaf (as is Genevieve Barr, the actress who plays her), Phil recalls that what most attracted him to his wife was how ‘exotic’ her deafness was. Meanwhile, Phil’s lack of physical strength is noted in the way he struggles to carry a large box during their first encounter at the Post Office, but it is never at the forefront of the action. It is merely incidental.
Jack Thorne, whose credits include the John Tiffany-directed Let the Right One In for the National Theatre of Scotland and the BBC Three television series The Fades, has a magnetic way with words. The play is subtitled, with dialogue projected onto a backdrop, and it is utterly poignant and astute.
Thorne is someone who understands people. Words are fired back and forth as if the characters are thinking in unison. Description is raw and graphic. At times it can even cause you to flinch.
The confusion for me lies in the amount of words Thorne throws at the audience. Although only an hour and 20 minutes long, I felt like I was being pelted with sentence after sentence. The wordiness is tough going in such a short play, but don’t let this put you off.
The brilliance of The Solid Life of Sugar Water lies in its intelligence, sensitivity and humour.