Review: Lipstick, Southwark Playhouse

In my opinion, the Southwark Playhouse is one of the most inspiring London theatre venues; never shying away from telling stories that teach all ages, especially when reaching out to the younger generation about topics schools shy away from. Lipstick is one of those magically crafted pieces that uses theatre skills to facilitate learning and the discovery of stories not always heard.

Lipstick is a new play by Lily Shahmoon centred around the lives of two school boys, Jordan, played by Helen Aluko and Tommy, played by April Hughes. Tommy is scared of everything and everyone, including himself with his desire to occasionally wear a dress and put on lipstick. Jordan, on the other hand is not scared of anyone or anything and is not even the tiniest bit scared when he realises he likes the way Tommy looks in lipstick. Actually, he likes it a lot. 

As a gay man, I find Lipstick refreshing to watch. It speaks from the heart but with very few clichés and does a great job at expressing the moments all boys go through when they are trying to work out who they are. For some, it’s easier than others and for some it’s difficult, especially for boys like myself. I remember being just like Tommy, hating football and never feeling like I could fit in. I felt I was weird because I was not considered normal, this still hasn’t changed much. My own mother, for example, can’t stand the fact I have long hair – it messes with her notions of what is normal and what isn’t.  

Lipstick does not just tell a great story, the Director, Ed White, has cast women in both roles (possibly because they were written this way?), challenging further our desires to box people in and asking us instead to look past the gender and see the acting instead. It does not take me long to accept the characters are boys, helped by the exceptional talent of both Aluko and Hughes, however I do wonder if the reason is to challenge us or to simply to be more diverse in their casting decisions. Whatever the reason, I feel it works but I also think, for some, it could be adding more confusion to an already overwhelming story that tackles multiple issues. 

We see Hughes perform Tommy’s anxiety, his fear of leaving the house wearing make-up, being labelled and not being accepted, as well as the fear of leaving home and being alone. We are briefly introduced to so many insecurities and worries that we barely have time to learn the full stories behind them. Likewise, the journey of Jordan is performed with some very touching moments from Aluko. The generosity of her emotions is acknowledged and I feel moved at times by her understanding of what it feels like to struggle with your sexuality as a young boy. I do, however, think that if the roles are played by men I may feel more connection. I can’t help but wonder if this concerns more than just myself. 

White and Shahmoon should feel proud for creating such an important piece and also for the support that they have given to Diversity Role Models, a charity that actively seeks to embed inclusion and empathy in the next generation, something we so desperately still need to fight for. Lipstick tackles a lot of sensitive experiences and touches on many emotions, but it is a story I feel is slightly unfinished, a play cut short of its full potential. I would be excited to see more.

Lipstick runs until the 28th March 2020. For more information and to book tickets visit the Southwark Playhouse website.