Let’s start with the staging, because it’s the very first thing you notice on entering. Southwark Playhouse already has an intimate feel, with only a few rows of seats surrounding the central stage. The simple and effective staging creates an adolescent haven that made me feel as if I was stepping into an actual teenager’s bedroom, not a playhouse. The setting is completed by a couple of iron railings filled with hoodies and shirts at the lower stage, a grey rectangular block for a bed, and a matching grey vanity table. Nothing more is needed.
What this simple staging does is allow for Charlie Smith’s sound design to shine. The presence of muffled bickering signalling a fight between the main character’s parents, which he’s seen trying to escape from; whilst heavy rock music filtered through the occasionally worn headphones gives us access to their inner worlds, and cleverly timed mobile phone ‘pings’ announce the all-too-familiar notification of instant text messages.
Helen Aluko and April Hughes are utterly convincing in their roles as the two teenage boys and their growing friendship. Even when not wearing their masculine wigs, instead exhibiting full locks of hair, you are still convinced you’re staring at a boy in drag. The choice to cast females to play the teenage boys feels curious in advance yet proves brilliant in wonderfully unforeseen ways. As they experiment with makeup and dresses supposedly for the first time, very traditional female rituals, it is nothing short of comedy gold. When they apply makeup on one another with the same graciousness as monkeys playing the violin, nearly gauging an eye out, I admittedly was in hysterics.
The music in the play helps add an extra layer of heartfeltness. Whitney Houston’s ‘I Want To Dance With Somebody’ being belted out by the two characters during a drag show is wonderful, and Keane’s ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ will forever be etched in my memory for its use in lulling one of the boys to sleep after a panic attack.
Lily Shahmoon’s writing is nothing short of impressive. Her use of one boys fear of walking over cracks that have been concealed as an analogy for the cracks in the boys’ budding relationship, as well as their psyches, is superb. As the play reaches its explosive culmination these fractured cracks are played out in a way that left my teeth clenched and my nerves shot. A testament to both writing and Ed White’s directing.
I have to say, this play is genius on so many layers and very hard to fault – but then again, why would you want to anyway?
Written by: Lily Shahmoon
Directed by: Ed White
Produced by: Rupert Henderson
Booking until: 28 March 2020
Booking link: https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show/lipstick/