FringeReview UK 2020
Directed and designed by Ed White, lit by Alex Lewer with Sound Design by Charlie Smith and Wigs by Samuel James. Stage Manager Lucy Vantham, Set Construction by Jake Haynes. Till March 28th.
So Jordan happens on fifteen-year-old Tommy putting on lipstick when bringing round his homework after Tommy’s missed school. Jordan’s puzzled, non-judgemental and with his attractive confidence soon drawn in unconditionally to Tommy’s hesitant, bruised world.
The bit of it Tommy shows. There’s much more beyond Lily Shahmoon’s delicately exuberant groundbreaker Lipstick than examining sexuality, gender dysphoria or transgender. It does all these but in just 70 minutes ends up examining us too.
More even than Tommy’s gender-performative self as Tina – as Jordan christens Tommy’s other. To underscore the provisionality of gender roles, Tommy’s played by April Hughes exuding a wincing courage, while Helen Aluko’s Jordan romps through taboos and instead of judging as most adolescents do, starts exploring the bit of Tina and Tommy that Tommy allows him to.
Tommy – himself protected as far as we can tell by an understanding family – knows more about Jordan’s, looking forlornly out of his window, seeing everything that doesn’t include him: the breaking-up of Jordan’s home as the mother prepares to move out. There’s more than a touch of ‘The Lady of Shallot’ about Tommy, and for good reason.
It probably shouldn’t matter these two actors worked two years together in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, though they do reveal a skin of trust that’s heart-stopping and completely enthralls. They’re not – they convince you – two women being boys, but you feel them as boys inching towards intimacy, daring to trust their hearts. It’s an exuberant chemistry even when Hughes in fact removes one wig to reveal something meant as a wig, as they hit the clubs as boy and girl; with mixed results.
‘Sorry I don’t fit into your preconceived notions of me’ ripostes Tommy unfairly at a later point when the torsions of their friendship stop and start after a hesitant fleeing kiss. Both experience reactive moments, though it’s Tommy who’s prone to flee.
Yet intimacies and explorations continue, as Jordan too tries out the meaning of lipstick, blush and mascara beyond the assigned femininity he already ports – purchasing his mother’s Tampax. Tommy explores one in baffled detail, whilst Jordan explains ‘that’s the expensive brand’ as if it – and human biology – were conceived differently to cheaper versions. With Shahmoon, there’s poise and wit along the very lines of confusion.
Forays end in a valedictory geography survey trip for their GCSEs in Devon, Jordan bored and busking absurd questions, as they contemplate the future. And ‘Ending life with a Margharita.’ Never such innocence again.
Pacily directed by Ed White in his debut in that role, White also designs with elegant economy: a carpeted rectangle in dove-grey with grey raised platforms containing hidden cabinets. Upstage a door-divided set of rails features clothes hung in pinks and reds. It’s lit warmly in Alex Lewer’s diffused radiance with no harsh lights for clubbing scenes. There’s a border-lighting effect chased in varying colours around the perimeter of the diminutive set, three sides facing the audience. Sound design by Charlie Smith includes various text and received sounds, reminding us how shut-in even Jordan’s world is. Samuel James’ wigs might surprise you.
Aluko’s warmly responsive Jordan has a way of fining down a response from an almost whoopy exterior to the fragility of applying mascara. She winningly describes in gesture and vocal range Jordan’s attempts to come to terms with first Tommy’s switchback difference and doubts, then his own. There’s a palpable sizzle to the tentative feelings they have for each other, not yet shoehorned into any name, any identity. Aluko has a way of calibrating Jordan’s warm acceptance from cajoling to the softest mute exchange.
Hughes’ Tommy is quite stunning. Hughes has to navigate from a numbed character to uncertain shoots of trust, and withdrawal even more than Jordan’s. Most of all though Tommy’s big reveal isn’t quite what Jordan expects. This isn’t even primarily about sexual identity, though the pair’s exploration of it is the basis of the only relationship either have with someone of their own age. In a searing speech Tommy unveils a side Jordan never dreams of, nor us; and it’s a rising tour-de-force of passions and terrors the more powerful for rising out of so numbed a persona. It sets the seal on a performance and play that should turn us upside down.
Southwark’s always a place of wonder: not least in the sheer rate of enchantment on offer. Do make a detour for this brave. tremulously beautiful coming of love.