In more ways than one Jack Thorne’s new play is about the language of sex, the things communicated through skin, fingers, touch, tongue. Alice and Phil have been together for three years. Sometimes they’re in sync with each other – physically, emotionally, sexually – sometimes not. And then she becomes pregnant, only to lose the baby so far along that she still has to go through labour.
Thorne looks at how such a shattering event might change their relationships with each other and their bodies. Sex here is something that can heal, that can connect people in ways words can’t; the play has this in common with Don’t Look Now, a film which contains one of the most memorable sex scenes in cinema, featuring a couple coming together after the loss of a child.
The Solid Life of Sugar Water covers some of the same thematic and emotional terrain as Thorne’s 2012 play, Mydidae, though this piece is less bladed, less cruel; here Thorne suggests that healing is possible, though the process will be a slow and painful one. This is a Graeae production so the surtitles are innovatively integrated into the design of the piece. The bed is, fittingly, at the centre of Lily Arnold’s set, made vertical, their bedroom upended so that the carpet and even the bedsheets becoming screens onto which the surtitles are projected. Alice’s character is deaf, as is Genevieve Barr, the actor who plays her, though this detail is secondary in their story. Thorne doesn’t ignore it though, he folds into the piece. The same goes for the fact that one of Phil’s hands is smaller than the other. Hands are important in this play, fingers and what they can do, where they can go; in fact, it’s the initial unexpected touch of hands, in a cinema, on an awkward second date, that first brings the couple together.
Both Barr and Arthur Hughes, as Phil, convincingly depict the play’s sometimes quite jarring emotional shifts, from the couple’s first blush of attraction to their painful, tentative attempts to relearn each other’s bodies after their loss. But it’s the writing that hits you squarely in the gut – it has a real sense of precision and meter, the tone sometimes funny, sometimes filthy, sometimes hopeful, sometimes utterly devastating. The play contains an intense sequence in which childbirth and intercourse get twisted up together, the couple’s moans and cries and gasps overlapping, the line between pleasure and pain blurring. All the sex scenes – there are many, though the acts are described rather than depicted – speak of deeper things about their relationship, about many people’s relationships: the little dishonesties, their failure to listen to one another, the things that go unsaid as they lick and stroke and probe one another. Amit Sharma’s production is not always an easy watch, it’s often upsetting and wrenching, but it’s funny too and done with sensitivity and intelligence.