Sometimes the disparity between the critics’ reviews of a production and the audiences’ verdict is so vast that I’m increasingly convinced that there’s a critical filter that mere mortals can’t pass through that reverses the way the pros and the rest of us think.
Dead Centre’s Lippy was critically acclaimed when it showed at the Edinburgh Fringe last year and the Young Vic’s marketing materials are adorned with quotes from gushing critics proclaiming it “extraordinary” and a play that “pushes at the limits of theatre” (in hindsight this may not have been meant as a compliment). But as the rather bemused audience shuffled out of the Maria Theatre the evening I saw it, the woman in front of me summed up Lippy better than any theatre critic, loudly proclaiming that it was “the biggest load of crap I’ve ever seen”, before accosting a steward demanding her money back “under the trade descriptions act”.
Lippy starts off strongly with a well played Q&A session for a play we never see. Lippy‘s main writer creator Bush Moukaezel plays a – presumably – more unprofessional and vapid version of himself who is interviewing one of the actors (played with impressive conviction all things considered by David Heap). The Interviewer is more interested in the actor’s off-stage lip reading skills than the play and during prompts the actor to reveal that he helped the police in the investigation into the deaths an elderly aunt and her three middle aged nieces when he was called upon to interpret the words of two of the women captured on CCTV on their final shopping expedition to Dublin. Moukarzel – as the Interviewer and it transpire as a writer – isn’t interested in this morsel of a story. And from this point, neither was I.
The Q&A session ends and the stage lights dim as thumping music pounds through the speaker while shadowy figures emerge from behind the thin curtain. This is the best moment in the production, genuinely terrifying and sinister, with real menace and unease. But then things go sub-Beckett as reality goes to the bar (later there’s a randomly thrown in reference to the demise of the interval, a decent theatre in-joke in another play, but why this one?). The music, the treacle like movement of the characters, the lack of focus create an anxious atmosphere that is irritating rather than evocative. In amongst all this muddle, the fates of these women became increasingly irrelevant.
There is an interesting story in here somewhere, the psychological study of why four women seemingly chose to starve themselves to death. And there’s certainly a valid point being made about us never being able to fully understand the world around us – trying to makes sense of it is like a lip reader trying to interpret the mumblings of a mad person. But all the interesting stuff is buried under several layers of pretension – even the actors don’t look particularly invested.
And there were so many unanswered questions; I don’t want to be spooned fed a story or its message, but there’s got to be a strong script and well developed characters to pull off surrealism, and there was something too cold and knowing about Lippy that prevents it pulling off the feat it sets itself. So extraordinary it might be, but not quite in the way the critics meant it.
by Suzanne Elliott
Lippy | Young Vic | Until 14 March 2015 | Tickets