Sunday 7 June 2015

Theatre Review: Lippy at Bristol Old Vic

This review was originally written for Theatre Bristol Writers

Fifteen years ago in a small Irish town, four women decided to die. Not only this, but over forty days they took time to extinguish every trace of themselves. 

With this at its core, you’re not exactly expecting Dead Centre’s Lippy to be a bundle of laughs. Which is what’s so wrong-footing about the way the performance begins. Without spoiling the premise, it’s amusing and apparently slightly shambolic, although in reality it’s anything but. What you do understand though, is that the actor answering questions posed by an inept interviewer is also an expert in lip reading. 

How useful yet precarious the inexact art of lip reading can be. Even though you don’t read just the lips but the whole face, ‘bear’ for example can easily be confused with ‘pear’. You can make the powerful seem ridiculous. Really, this lip reader could be seen as the most unreliable narrator of them all.

This is where the four women come in. In their tragic story, based on real-life events, nobody knows why they did what they did. But our lip reader has been co-opted by the Irish Garda to provide an interpretation of the last words they were seen uttering in public. Time is suspended, fragmented, as the past mingles with the present. The flowers in their living room are dead, alive and dead again. Walls become floors. Are we watching the women who died or the forensic team that discovers them? An actor or a father? 

This sense of unreality is heightened by powerful sound and lighting design, use of AV and a cleverly constructed set. It’s claustrophobic and disturbing; this room in which the four women died. Because they didn't do it suddenly, dramatically, but in the most painful and isolating way of all. Seeking not just death but a slow and harrowing obliteration. 

There are hints as to why. But how reliable can they be, given what we have already been told? Meaning is so easily distorted, subject to interpretation. It’s an intense and unnerving yet compelling ninety minutes. You aren't allowed an interval – well, not in reality – and the experience is so immersive that you long for, yet reject the possibility of, release. After the overwhelming, nihilistic ending, it’s almost impossible to reconcile this with the actors smiling as they take their bows.

When that release finally comes, emerging into the fresh air, it’s difficult to accept the everyday, still haunted as you are by the events in that room. Under the direction of Ben Kidd and Bush Moukarzel (who also plays The Interviewer) something remarkable has been created here. These women, their plight, stays with you long afterwards.

Reviewed as part of Mayfest on 22nd May 2015.

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