You ever been sat up in bed, unable to sleep, reading a book or just staring ahead, and had a total loss of perspective? The sensation that the end of your arms could be miles away, the walls and ceiling are practically touching you, you’re not entirely certain which way gravity is pulling but you seem stuck to the bed for some reason. If you stop paying attention, certain parts of your brain can play tricks on themselves. Brains do a lot of things without our asking.
In Jack Thorne’s The Solid Life of Sugar Water, Alice and Phil are pinned, sprawling, against their bed. Lily Arnold’s design here is so spot on: the young couple’s marriage bed shunted perpendicular to gravity, strip-lit around its fringes, making it look like an incubator, and Phil and Alice as helpless as if they belong there. The frequent, gorgeous, awful visual trick of seeing Phil and Alice walking, sitting, sideways on on the wall of their bedroom. It’s displaced, it’s familiar, it’s home but it’s also so, so wrong in a fundamental way.
At the heart of Sugar Water is a miscarriage. And I only say that because of a tendency to focus on the tragic. You could equally make the argument that the play is about a second attempt, a first meeting, nothing in particular. There is, though, that trauma behind it all that seizes all emotional attention. It’s a trauma that set time and space both out of joint. Alice learns she has suffered an antepartum haemorrhage. Those two words echo out of both characters’ mouths. Phil tries them backwards and they hold just as much senseless horror as forwards.
The ‘sugar water’ of the title is how Phil describes Alice’s breast milk after inadvertently sucking it from her during sex. It’s a cracking example of how the language of this play works; it’s like poetry you almost don’t want to hear. At times, its misery is unbearable, but it’s full of love. Phil and Alice are so excellently written together, so beautifully portrayed (by Arthur Hughes and Genevieve Barr, respectively) that the play, and its language, is as much about joy and life as it is anything else. Here are a couple who are strong together, and will stay together.
Perhaps it’s trauma that splits the play into its non-linear form. But whatever the cause, I think the result says something deeper about the way we live and exist. Our lives and identities are both continuous, but constantly changing and the idea of any single event being a separate stratified thing doesn’t fit. And Sugar Water doesn’t try to make that narrative fit. If it is trauma that it exposes, what that trauma exposes is strength, and not fragility, in the stream of existence. Even as, in one particular moment, Alice and Phil’s life seems to be falling apart, we are shown scenes of love, of support and of growth.
As they rush into the hospital reception, Phil can shout nothing but ‘NOW. NOW.’ Here is where Thorne puts his finger on the point. Alice and Phil are signposting, grabbing at, moments, as if frantically to fix them, as if to gain perspective, a vantage point. The futility, and the saving grace, is that we do not live in moments, and neither are we defined by them. We live in streams, where everything, sometimes cruelly, sometimes mercifully, is brief, and fleeting.
The Solid Life of Sugar Water was on at the Royal Exchange, Manchester. Click here for more of their programme.