Hugely ambitious debut play from Annie Jenkins about two women locked in a suffocating friendship
Cynthia can’t leave the house. Doesn’t want to either: she just wants Maud to stay in with her, singing and dancing to Shirley Bassey, feathering their little nest with boas and wigs and sequins and stories. But Maud, for the first time in years, wants to look out: she’s begun a romance with Dennis, albeit a tentative one. Both women have troubled histories that threaten their delicate connection.
Annie Jenkins’s debut play, directed by Alice Hamilton, combines two gently familiar set-ups: a dependent relationship steeped in self-mythologising between two damaged, eccentric individuals (bringing to mind Philip Ridley’s plays among others), and a tentative romance between two awkward, bad-at-communicating people (recalling Barney Norris’s ‘While We’re Here’, which Hamilton also directed). When the two strands meet, the results are explosive – which also feels familiar: so much new writing seems to lurch towards violence in the attempt to find an ending. Jenkins, however, throws in a killer final twist, which ensures that the last moments of ‘In Lipstick’ are genuinely winding.
There’s bags of promise here, and much of Jenkins’s writing is very good: the manic, possessive, motor-mouthed Cynthia sparkles and crackles. Alice Sykes fiercely animates the part, while also finding moments of stiller sorrow. And there’s lovely tenderness – both long-nurtured and newly-minted – between both the pairs; Hamilton’s direction is best at such moments of wistful poignancy. I really enjoyed, too, how the Bassey songs often mirrored plot developments.
But there are also some strange directorial decisions that occasionally undermine or over-expose the play. Cynthia, who we discover is turning 21, is directed so childishly that, for the first few scenes, I wondered if she was meant to be a kid. This feels wilfully quirky, making what Jenkins has written – which is plenty odd already – seem even odder.
As Maud, Caroline Faber is very good at being terribly sad and weary, but she remains terribly sad and weary throughout, even on early dates with Dennis. And while James Doherty does excellent work in that role, the ‘just a normal working-class bloke’ schtick is sometimes dodgily written: the obsession with football and jokes about Lynx Africa feel tired, and there is a dreadful ’90s sitcom-style sex scene.
Then there’s the set. Three different locations – Maud’s front room (sparkly!), Dennis’s front room (depressing) and a park with, for logistical reasons, looming walls (even more depressing but presumably not intentionally so) – are created by designer Delyth Evans on a revolve. A revolve, at the Pleasance! But just because you can afford a revolve doesn’t mean you should use a revolve: it slows down the action something rotten, in service of needless naturalism. So much of ‘In Lipstick’ really fizzes, it’s a shame to let it go flat like this.