Lip Service (Strange Duck) – theatre review

John Misto’s witty and acerbic Lip Service translates to a top night of entertainment. The play concerns a battle royale between cosmetics giants between 1954 and 1965. It’s Helena Rubinstein versus Elizabeth Arden, with both under siege from Revlon. Misto has taken the truth and embellished it with sparkling effect.

Don’t for a moment think that because the subject matter is rouge, mascara and lipstick that the play will only appeal to women. These are warriors in combat mode. They don’t allow themselves the luxury of letting down their guard.

Rubinstein (played by Amanda Muggleton) was born in Poland in 1870. Standing a diminutive 4 foot 10 (147 cms), she emigrated to Australia in 1902, with no money and little English. Her career began in Coleraine in country Victoria, where she cashed in on her mother’s recipe for face cream by sourcing local lanolin. She sold jars of her popular beauty product to local women and devised plans to build her business in the city, later opening her first salon in Melbourne’s stylish Collins Street. Sydney, London and New York followed, as she created a worldwide empire. Rubinstein is painted late in life as self-centred, vitriolic and stingy. She chooses to regularly lambast those around her, including her two sons.

Florence Nightingale Graham, who went by the business name Elizabeth Arden (Linden Wilkinson), was born in Canada in 1884 and built her territory from the US. Fifty years later she owned 150 upscale salons in America and Europe, selling 1,000 products.

Misto’s play envizages an imaginary relationship between Rubinstein and Arden in which they are frenemies. Something they shared – according to this take by Misto – was antipathy toward one of Revlon’s founders, Charles Revson. He’s liberally referenced but not seen in the play.

The third character in the show is Rubinstein’s right-hand man, Patrick O’Higgins (Septimus Caton). He’s an Irishman who ingratiates himself into Rubinstein’s life and becomes invaluable, putting up with her impossible ways.

The set is simple, but a cracker (the designer was Richard Roberts). It includes a safe, which contains Rubinstein’s jewels and, wait for it … chicken pieces, which she frequently feasts on. She can’t see the point of a fridge when the safe is air-tight.

I wasn’t totally sold on Muggleton’s Polish accent. I also felt some of the scenes pushed too hard (to the point of farce). But by and large I thoroughly enjoyed what was served up. There were surprises and plenty of smart one-liners from all three characters, especially Rubinstein. Jennifer Hagan’s direction is never dull and the play moves along at pace.

After successful seasons in London and Sydney, Lip Service is playing at Melbourne’s The Lawler Theatre until 28 July 2018.

Alex First

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