Christopher Walker reviews “Lipstick – a Fairy-tale” of Iran at the Omnibus Theatre. Playing until March 24.
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*** (three stars)
The 96 Festival returns to celebrate “queerness and theatre” at the Omnibus Clapham.
That is Omnibus as in “the man on the Clapham Omnibus”, though I suspect that crack is wasted on a contemporary audience.
Omnibus is one of the most interesting recent growths on London’s fringe theatre vine.
Under artistic director Marie McCarthy and “chair” (ex-Labour MP) Fiona Mactaggart, it tackles controversial and demanding pieces.
This is certainly the case with the jewel in the crown of its LGBTQ festival, Lipstick – a Fairy-tale in Iran. Written and directed by Sarah Chew, it is an unusual, challenging, piece.
The story concerns a Londonderry woman, Orla, brilliantly played by Siobhan O’Kelly. She describes herself as a “radical feminist,” and her accent as “smelling of semtex.”
We certainly get used to both concepts, over nearly two hours, as she is the only actor who actually speaks in this two-hander.
Orla’s experiences as a British Council artistic “teaching ambassador” in Iran are described in great detail.
This is a story worth telling, and something of a call to arms for human rights supporters.
The situation of women in Iran as laid out here is a bleak one.
Always completely covered and with very limited freedom, they live in fear of the religious police and are subject to hideous violence.
One of Orla’s pupils rebelliously wears lipstick, while describing how the police carry scalpels to deliberately maim any female lips found wearing it.
This is a two-hander with a particularly unusual twist.
The pupil, indeed every character Orla encounters in this tale, with one or two exceptions, is played by the long-suffering drag artist Nathan Kiley.
Sarah Chew makes him rush around stage grabbing props and going through at least 30 costume changes. This was exhausting to watch and I felt like getting up to help him.
As mentioned, Nathan Kiley never actually speaks. Well not “live.”
Director Sarah Chew has decided to have all utterances by his main character, Mark, Orla’s best friend drag artist, recorded and played on Orla’s hotel answer machine.
Kiley does a lot of lip-synching. Why? Is it some kind of statement about how free speech is denied women in Iran?
It feels frustrating, and puts a huge amount of the dialogue, or should I say monologue, on Ms Kelly’s shoulders. This director is very hard on both her performers.
Overall, Lipstick is very thought-provoking. My main concern with this piece is that it is not very “inclusive.”
The shocking treatment of women in Iran is of course replicated in other Middle Eastern countries where the various religious police forces, the “Mukhabarat,” hold sway.
As such many Moslem women would be very interested in this play. But by having Nathan Kiley remove his clothes, for no real reason, and spout (via the answer machine) a series of sexually explicit tales, again rather gratuitously, Sarah Chew makes it very hard for them to attend.
Omnibus Theatre definitely deserves all of our support. “A small place to encounter big ideas,” it was shortlisted for the “Fringe Theatre of the Year.”
Under a female-led team, it is committed to showcasing challenging pieces, offering affordable tickets, and connecting to different elements in the local community.