Sophie Adnitt reviews Lipstick, a play by Lily Shahmoon now playing at Southwark Playhouse.
Tommy and Jordan are two sixteen-year-old boys, their minds occupied by GCSE’s, school trips, girls, and Tommy’s proclivity for applying a bold red lip in the privacy of his bedroom – and that’s just the start of it. Gender, sexuality and mental health are all explored in Lily Shahmoon’s play Lipstick, now playing at Southwark Playhouse, but in all three cases it’s only fleetingly – the play never seems too willing to define itself to a central topic, which can leave it feeling vague.
This aside, Shahmoon has written a very, very good play. The language and speech patterns of teenage boys are well captured and the humour is unpretentious and unforced, stemming from how delightfully recognisable certain statements are. Teen angst and hormonal drama are exploited for all they’re worth, and the dialogue is realistic and very funny. Shahmoon sees where to move the story on quickly and where to linger, and the running time feels like only a fraction of its 70 minutes. Occasionally certain scenes stretch the bounds of believability (it’s difficult to totally accept that two sixteen-year-olds could get into a nightclub so easily) but this doesn’t detract from the overall strength of the plot. The narrative remains surprising and unclichéd to the end, never patronising its audience or resorting to shock tactics.
We only ever meet Jordan and Tommy onstage, but excellent use of sound, from Charlie Smith, creates a whole world around them, especially cleverly done when Jordan slips his headphones on to drown out the sound of his parents arguing. Alex Lewer’s lighting takes on the Playhouse’s ‘Little’ performance space as an advantage, not a limitation, creating an intelligent design that leaves no square inch wasted. Ed White’s direction keeps things clear and clean throughout, avoiding any muddle on the compact stage.
Helen Aluko as outwardly confident Jordan and April Hughes as the shyer, but self-aware Tommy are both extraordinary performers. It’s all too easy to forget that these are two female performers portraying the boys, as they’ve got the postures and gestures, every shrug and swagger absolutely nailed. Both characters are fully defined, with their own traits and habits whilst still maintaining natural chemistry that develops beautifully throughout the piece.
The finished product is a play that is unexpectedly gentle and tender, albeit with an undeniable sense of underlying darkness. An all-round extremely well-crafted piece of theatre, Lipstick stands strong.
Runs until 28 March at Southwark Playhouse