The Pleasance Main House plays host to a new comedy drama by Annie Jenkins, which was originally developed as part of a new writing festival at The Arcola, before being shortlisted for the Theatre503 Playwriting Award. In Lipstick could quite easily be described as a black comedy, but it’s so much more, this play about power and frailty is absolutely gripping from start to finish.
Maud and Cynthia’s relationship feels unusual from the outset, appearing more like a mother and daughter pairing than a romantic union. Both women have suffered in some way, but it is Cynthia who seems most affected, while Maud goes out to work and keeps the day to day aspects of life running, Cynthia remains confined to their small flat, unable or unwilling to go outside.
Cynthia is unable to sleep unless Maud tells her a story, and is happiest when watching Shirley Bassey videos online, or selecting items from her well stocked dressing up box. Cynthia’s life is rooted in routine, so when Maud meets Dennis, a divorced security guard, and starts spending more and more time with him, the familiar daily pattern dissolves.
Throughout In Lipstick you’re left with an uneasy feeling that something isn’t quite right, the plot is plausible but the characters seem to be pulling in the wrong direction and making unusual choices. It is only in the final minutes of the play that the genius of Annie Jenkins’ plot comes together, like the final piece of the jigsaw fitting in to place you see the bigger picture, and are amazed that you didn’t see it coming.
The themes are dark, but there’s plenty of comedy built in, which both keeps the production moving at a pace, and acts as a mask to conceal the reality of the situation. Director, Alice Hamilton maintains a delicate balance between the hurt, humour and honesty of the characters, helping the audience to identify with each of them in their own way.
Delyth Evans’ design utilises a revolve to fantastic effect, two living rooms and a small park spin in and out of view, often allowing you to see how characters not necessarily in the current scene are behaving. Ed Clarke’s sound design works particularly well during the revolves, and the overall look feels just right.
Caroline Faber and James Doherty, as Maud and Dennis respectively, have some excellent scenes together, usually generating the lions share of the comedy moments. Both of these characters are intrinsically believable and Jenkins’ writing ensures that we understand both characters fully, perhaps not immediately, but eventually.
Cynthia is a more complex character, a key point of the play is that her behaviour is exhausting to those around her, yet her childlike innocence is endearing enough to command tolerance. Alice Sykes captures this role beautifully, watching her scenes feel physically draining for the audience, and yet we are captivated by the delight in her eyes as she prances around the room in a sparkly dress belting out Bassey, or devouring another chicken nugget.
The superb writing behind In Lipstick makes it an incredible piece of theatre, the various elements of the plot building to a crescendo which leaves you astonished and impressed in equal measure. Coupled with exacting performances, particularly from Alice Sykes, this new play is an undeniable triumph.