4/5 Stars

★★★★ Lipstick

Harry Bignell reviews Lipstick at Omnibus Theatre in Clapham.


This play is a beautiful, sensitive and unsettling performance that explores disparate realities and sexualities in a jarring juxtaposition of time, location and circumstance. The play switches between the three as Orla, played by Siobhan O’Kelly, reflects on her experience as an artistic director in Iran, working with young women trying to express themselves in a prohibitive society.

Best friend Mark, played by Nathan Kiley, starts the play as a sexually explorative, bubbly character who refers to his previous performance work dismissively as ‘fag drag’.  Contrasted with what Orla witnesses in Iran, Mark’s interjections, conveyed through voicemail recordings, seem initially superficial and self-consciously crude. As the play progresses, however, cracks begin to appear and his vulnerability and fragility begin to reveal themselves as, simultaneously, his friend is pulled deeper into her temporary life in Iran.

The script is tantamount to a monologue from O’Kelly who moves through it confidently and competently, faltering only once and moving on so seamlessly I wondered if I’d imagined it. The use of recorded narrative and song breaks up the narrative. Kiley’s ability to move between show tunes, spoken word and opera is almost as impressive as his painfully cinched waist which is emphasized by the glamourous figure hugging gowns he wears and, during a later moment of intense vulnerability, nothing but a corset.

The distance between the two friends increases as Mark finds himself increasingly in need of his friend’s support, but Orla is sucked into a life in Iran which sees her witness sexual oppression, violence and inequality, as well as bravery, defiance and resistance.

The set is designed around a catwalk which allows O’Kelly to walk into the audience during moments of direct address and doubles up as a stage for Mark when he performs, both in jest for Orla’s amusement and as part of their burlesque bar, the opening of which forms the backdrop to the entire play.

Irony is a key theme in Lipstick, present in the juxtaposition between the sexually liberated but lost and lonely Mark and the contextually oppressed but headstrong and confident Iranian student with whom Orla forms a close bond. It is also present in that way that after every troubling and harrowing situation Orla witnesses she acidly observes that perhaps this is just an experience she should witness ‘as a feminist artist’.

This is not a performance that preaches or passes judgement. It is a semi-autobiographical exploration of the intersectionality between two different cultures and the impact unwittingly witnessing atrocity and oppression can have on an individual completely unprepared for it.

By far the best play I have had the pleasure of watching recently, I would urge anyone to get themselves down to the Omnibus Theatre and experience Lipstick for themselves.

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