Start with sex: awkward, unwashed, reluctant sex. A couple shares their inner thoughts with surrounding audiences as they try to re-establish intimacy after pregnancy. Phil (Adam Fenton) is clumsy and selfish; Alice (Katie Erich) is condescending but brutally enthusiastic. They mimic their actions from opposite ends of a bed. It looks like she is kneading. She criticizes her body in graphic and frankly not chivalrous terms. The encounter is messy, inconclusive and hilarious.
From here opens Jack Thorne’s succinct powerful one-act. We discover that one and perhaps both characters are disabled, they go back to their perfectly imperfect courtship and coexistence, and we soon realize that their baby is stillborn. A full production of this portrait of pain, love and exasperation was the Indiana Lown-Collins Award for winning the JMK Award for Young Directors, named after the up-and-coming James Menzies Kitchen, who died aged 28. She acts and her two performers are proud.
The prolific Thorne, who wrote the TV series This is England with Shane Meadows, wrote the Jodie Comer / Stephen Graham drama Covid Help and adapted Harry Potter for the stage, wrote this 75-minute piece in 2015 for Graeae, the company that stages deaf and disabled artists at the center of its practice. Alice (like Erich) is Deaf, something Phil finds exotic and seductive. It is not explicitly stated that Phil is disabled, but Fenton has Tourette and his tics fit the character.
Disability is not the focus of the story, just another color in the palette. Characters are not measured against an enabler world but against each other. Alice mocks Phil’s attempt to use sign language. Phil mocks his music collection (but then he likes Dire Straits). They are both complex and not entirely likable.
Erich is domineering as Alice in the dating scenes of the couple, heartbreaking at her loss, silently moving into a belated monologue that is signed rather than spoken. Fenton – who should be cast to play Matt Smith’s dissipated brother in something as soon as possible – exposes all of Phil’s flaws along with his boyish charm. The actor won one of twelve £ 10,000 scholarships from the Evening Standard / TikTok Future Theater Fund during the lockdown in 2021, and boy, if he deserved it.
Lown-Collins and designer Ica Niemz enhance the inclusive spirit of the game. Even in a well-rounded theater like the Orange Tree the audience can feel detached, but here we are enlisted and accomplices. “Creative caption” involves surtitle screens mounted above the stalls on all four sides, on which dialogue unfolds, overlaps and expands like concrete poetry, and sometimes turns into a fetal heartbeat.
The central event of the show is heartbreaking, and there are necessary content warnings for those who have experienced something similar. But writing this right after, what I mostly remember is the sarcasm and warmth of the characters and the last tender moments. Thorne never ceases to stimulate and entertain, although sometimes the male perspective dominates too much. The actors are great. Can’t wait to see what Lown-Collins will do.
Orange Theateruntil November 12; orangetreetheatre.co.uk