Image: Peter Marsh

“Elegantly unsettling”: Lip Service review

Coursing through Freshblood’s Lip Service is a piercing sense of unease. Set in the office of a Soho nightclub-cum-brothel in 1978, a mix of male employees, employers and female sex workers argue and cope with personal issues that have more public consequences.

A consistent blend of joviality and viciousness helps to bring out the impending fear. Dutch, the resident crackhead sensitively played by Ethan Peters, puzzles over a philosophical query: would the lone survivor of a plane crash feel blessed or cursed? Whilst he playfully addresses the wider question of survival, the two prostitutes, Marianna (Amelia Moore) and Strophe (Hayley Simpson), ponder their own chances of surviving in their profession. The grand and the personal are constantly juxtaposed to create a disturbing atmosphere within the office space.

The grand and the personal are constantly juxtaposed to create a disturbing atmosphere

Language is its own actor throughout the production. Dutch talks incessantly about drugs, news and ontology, yet he is unable form a description of the matters in front of him, becoming increasingly lost for words towards the end of the play. Meanwhile, Beef and Turner menacingly convince the door girl Olivia to have sex with new client Skinner. Yet Marianna is the only one who can state explicitly their intent: that Olivia, chosen for her youthfulness, must “sleep with him”. And while the characters bicker about the pronunciation of ‘Reykjavik’, the audience temporarily forgets the underlying violence, until Olivia’s shocking and bloody re-entrance reminds them. The difficulty of verbalising emotion struggles against repeated discussions of external or economic matters to draw us into the dehumanisation of the characters. Women are turned into lucrative projects, whilst their knowledge and feelings are neglected.

At its core, this production deals fiercely with gendered experiences in the workplace. The interactions between the three female characters reveal how difficult it is to find compassion, friendship and respect in an environment that capitalises on male pleasure and female submission. Proprietor Turner becomes frustrated with Marianna’s emotional distance (the two attempt something resembling a relationship), when, in a workplace where female sex workers are expected to be passionate yet obedient, emotional yet dutiful, Turner’s exclamation “I’m not just anyone,” is met with the flippant retort, “You are to me.” The scene is gracefully acted by Charlie Coombes Roberts and Moore, as Turner and Marianna move around the limited office space, creating an electric tension and exposing abuse.

At its core, this production deals fiercely with gendered experiences in the workplace

Sound also plays a crucial role in amplifying the strained environment. Dutch dances enthusiastically to ‘Yes Sir, I Can Boogie’, whilst the other men discuss finances. Then in the second half, Dutch chooses to sing the same song over more serious discussions, complicating the seemingly innocent interactions in the first scene.

Olivia (or Lavinia, as the characters keep referring to her in a thinly veiled allusion to Shakespeare) appears as a memory in the second half, and the relentless silence of her ‘ghost’ is almost deafening. The viewers must instead focus on her actions, as she progresses from shock to solemn complacency, opening doors and pouring drinks. The symbolic transition to subservience is poignant and jarring.

Writer Tom George, a fourth-year student at Warwick, elegantly explores an array of masculinities. Whilst Beef (Dillon Rix) brags about his “economic mind”, his name and general demeanour betray a stylised form of macho masculinity, and yet his pricks of conscience later in the play demonstrate a certain complexity of that masculinity.

Writer Tom George elegantly explores an array of masculinities

Beef, however, is outranked by Pablo (Guy Jack) and is always desperately trying to be both intimidating and refined. Interestingly, Pablo’s walking stick and Skinner’s modest demeanour aid in enhancing their fearfulness, hinting at the more insidious elements of patriarchal hierarchy. Charlie Cooper successfully masks Skinner’s viciousness with a façade of well-acted awkwardness and politeness. Yet, mirroring the traditions of Greek tragedy, his true violence is tellingly kept off-stage, leaving the audience to deal with the emotional and physical aftermath of the power structures at hand.

An impressive attention to detail helps to bring both acts together. Alcohol and cigarettes in the first half enhance the party atmosphere, whilst in the second half they are used for comfort or a means of forgetting. Lighting is associated with new entrances and and air of celebration, where later the harsh red glow becomes a symbol of the violence outside the threshold. Dutch’s knife is linked with childishness in the first act, but in the second it becomes a murder weapon. The focus on tech and props is elegantly unsettling; it shows, as Dutch laments, that the party must eventually come to an end.

Lip Service is at the Warwick Arts Centre until October 27. Tickets can be bought here.

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