After a successful outing at last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Jack Thorne’s The Solid Life of Sugar Water is currently touring. Joe Turnbull caught a performance at the National Theatre to see if the production could live up to its hype in such a prestigious setting.
As the audience files into the venue, a couple lie innocuously in a vertical bed, as if seen from above. They appear fast asleep and oblivious to the hundreds of eyes on them. It feels voyeuristic and decidedly disconcerting. Things only get more unsettling from here, with 10 excruciating minutes of graphic and stomach-turning detail on Alice (Genevieve Barr) and Phil’s (Arthur Hughes) sex life.
It borders on cringe-comedy in these opening exchanges, but it quickly becomes apparent that The Solid Life of Sugar Water is a serious autopsy of the couple’s relationship following the stillbirth of their first child. The laundry that Alice and Phil are airing in public isn’t just dirty, it’s blood-stained.
As audience we are privy to both characters’ internal dialogue, yet they themselves are oblivious to some of their glaring disconnects. Jack Thorne’s writing is fearless, embracing those awkward and intimate moments of life and celebrating them for what they are. The gory details that bombard you at every turn build pressure and tension, before being released like a valve with notes of humour or tenderness. At times in the awkward silences you can almost feel the squirms of discomfort rippling through the audience like a heavy contraction.
But the mood is lifted with a lightness of touch that sees the couple retell how they first met and their early encounters – the narratives of both characters flitting effortlessly between different periods of their relationship. Their perspectives seem to inexorably diverge, but the problems stem from the projection of their own insecurities, rather than the reality of what the other is thinking. This is a relationship which is fundamentally based on love.
Having performed the piece at Edinburgh last year (see here for DAO's review) and since taken it on tour, both Barr and Hughes have got inside their characters and worn them in like a comfy pair of shoes. This can sometimes lead to complacency or lack of spark, but not in this case. The chemistry remains electric, and neither were by any means overawed by the hallowed setting. If anything, they felt at home here.
It seems ironic that the black hole at the centre of Alice and Phil’s relationship is miscommunication, but the fact Alice is Deaf has nothing to do with it. This is perhaps a playful in-joke by Graeae, who are so familiar with the issue. It’s referenced nicely when Alice mentions that Phil once signed badly to her before their first kiss: “to this day I still don’t know what he was trying to say”. Impairment and disability in this production are refreshingly incidental.
The crux of their discord is encapsulated deftly in one particularly difficult scene, which sees Phil on the one hand describe a previously successful sexual encounter, while on the other Alice relives the agony of giving birth to a baby that’s already dead. The juxtaposition is stark.
The staging is a triumph of brilliant simplicity, all centred around the vertical bed, gilded with neon lights, with slick music and lighting transitions between scenes. Overall, Sugar Water is hard to watch, but it’s also hard to fault. There are times when it borders on endurance rather than enjoyment, but that’s life – it’s messy, it’s difficult and it doesn’t go to plan.
But perhaps the biggest disappointment of this particular run at the National is, surprisingly, the venue. Nothing wrong with their Temporary Theatre per se, but this production is deserving of one of the bigger spaces. As it turns out, the cramped and uncomfortable setting was particularly fitting for the subject matter.
Sugar Water eschews sugar-coating what is a difficult subject matter, which despite its commonness is little-discussed. These are the grey areas of life that can be so fruitful to explore with theatre. They’ve struck solid gold with this one.