Lipstick (Southwark Playhouse, Little)

There are two debuts on show in the world premiere of Lipstick, which had its press performance last night. Writer Lily Shahmoon’s first play marks Ed White’s professional directing debut, which gives this 70 minute play a sense of occasion.

Gender norms and expectations are challenged by casting two women in the roles of teenage boys: a deliberate choice by the writer intended to make the audience consider why certain behaviours (such as wearing lipstick) are seen as a problem for boys and not for girls.

It’s an interesting premise, and goes some way to explaining why the play wasn’t more conventionally cast, but I am not convinced it fully succeeds in the play’s current form and length. In a world where gender fluidity is becoming more accepted, Lipstick needs to take that extra step to consider how its central characters see the world and themselves.

Helen Aluko and April Hughes in Lipstick
Helen Aluko and April Hughes in Lipstick

Wearing make-up in itself may subvert traditional views of masculinity, but it’s been close to fifty years since male pop singers first put on eye shadow and lipstick and set themselves up as teenage role models, and many women appear androgynous and cosmetic-free.

Tommy (April Hughes) and Jordan (Helen Aluko)’s relationship feels deep and intense, as teenage attachments often are, and there could be more to explore in their growing exploration of personal identity. Parents are mentioned, but absent: Jordan’s constantly at war, Tommy’s remote but presumably supportive.

Tommy’s health issues are well drawn-out in places: his anxiety disorder feels believable until a melt-down with a litany of drug brand-names (some which would not be prescribed together) and a hint of something more serious which is only briefly explored.

April Hughes and Helen Aluko in Lipstick
April Hughes and Helen Aluko in Lipstick

There are moments of closeness between the boys which work beautifully, a tenderness of spirit and a shared understanding. Both actors catch the mannerisms of teenage lads; Aluko’s Jordan in particular has the walk and talk of the boy hiding behind mock bravado and primal violence, while Hughes’s Tommy attempts to mimic his venacular and language in one amusing scene.

However, I was not able to shake off the knowledge we were watching shes playing hes: excellent though the performances are (and they are, with the characters forming a delicious challenge for any actor), I was wondering throughout how the play would fare with male actors, or non-binary, gender fluid or trans performers.

Earlier in the day there had been a lively social media debate about the casting of Patrick/Kitten in the new musical Breakfast on Pluto at Birmingham Rep. This character is defined as trans but isn’t a million miles away from Tommy in Lipstick, especially in the scene at the club.

April Hughes as Tommy in Lipstick
April Hughes as Tommy in Lipstick

The set, designed by director White, is dominated by two rails of clothes (which serve for quick changes as the play progresses), and a door frame that lights up to denote changes in time and place. This takes a bit of getting used to at first, as we settle into finding the action out in the street, in a store, at school, but works well once the story gets going.

Less effective are the use of, and discarding of, wigs. Another comment on our biases and perceptions, perhaps, but I wasn’t sure of the significance of this stylistic choice.

I found Lipstick largely a well-written piece with plenty of threads and ideas which could be expanded, but it isn’t quite there yet. See it for its potential and for a pair of performances that inhabit the spirit of their characters.

Lipstick continues at the Southwark Playhouse until 28 March. Images by Lidia Crisafulli.

LouReviews received a complimentary ticket to see Lipstick.

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