Take a couple. Put them in a bed. Rotate that bed to standing position. Give audience an aerial view. Decorate bedroom to give ‘lived-in’ impression. Don’t let couple leave bedroom. Wait and witness.
A simple conceit when executed to perfection is almost enough to power a production. And it’s pretty perfect. Lily Arnold’s design of Alice (Genevieve Barr) and Phil’s (Arthur Hughes) bedroom is inventive, meticulous, and mesmerising. The perfectly sculpted laundry volcano in the corner (with its lava-like overflow), the iPhone charger lying on the floor/wall, the mugs of tea that ‘sit’ on the bedside table. Each detail documents the most typical of living situations, but as a whole creates a fluid image that is exceptional. It arouses the routine, makes the banal remarkable. And with Barr and Hughes seamlessly manipulating their bodies to fit the topsy-turvy chamber, the effect is straightforward but staggering.
It also makes sense. Alice and Phil are coping. With sex. With loss. With each other. With what their lives mean, both together and separately. They relive their relationship, and their first impressions of each other (he ‘harmless’, she ‘exotic’). It’s clear that, as years roll on, decisions pile up like bricks upon bricks, like clothes upon clothes, until they find themselves in a room of their own making from which they can’t escape. You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.
They both express feeling trapped (for comedic and tragic effect), and the rotated room reflects that. With a script that refers to so many ins and outs, insertions and expulsions, it’s a cruel sort of coincidence (or not) that there are no entrances or exits. Alice and Phil are forced to stay put and wade through their viscous lives.
If all the room represented was their own confinement, the theatrical fuel would probably run dry. After all it’s not a real stretch. However, Amit Sharma chooses in this production to emphasise the infuriating instability of communication. Phil can be hopeless at picking up on Alice’s very clear signs, and at crucial moments Alice’s deafness leaves her alienated and totally reliant upon Phil. Graeæ Theatre Company’s signature characteristic, the integration of sign language and captioning, is used to great effect: the captions don’t just frame the actors but play a role of their own, jumping from place to place around the bedroom as if they too might need pinning down. Like any form of communication, they are present but frustratingly fleeting.
The loss Alice and Phil suffer is enough to turn their world upside down. And even when they are so close they can’t help but touch, even when literally trapped in the same room, sometimes thoughts and feelings are lost to an unreliable language. But in their effort to console and to find comfort in one another, they work through the barriers of communication. And Arnold’s set evolves from a simple upright bedroom to an ever-tumultuous landscape in which they choose to contort themselves, fighting gravity, in the basic but desperate hope of connecting.
The Solid Life of Sugar Water takes a straightforward idea, executes it beautifully, and then expands upon its possible meanings and implications. It orients itself between states, not quite solid, not quite liquid, and instead displays a constant state of precarity that we must not only trudge through but learn to live in.
The Solid Life of Sugar Water is on until 19th March 2016. Click here for tickets.