True stories about powerful women make gripping source material for books, movies, television, and the stage. Further more, when two opposing forces clash head on, let the fun and games begin.
Recent examples of this fascinating sub – genre include several television hits. Feud, detailed the poisonous hatred between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as they filmed Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, and Paper Giants – Magazine Wars, the editorial rivalry between Woman’s Day’s Nene King, and New Idea’s Dulcie Boling.
For decades, Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, were official queens of the cosmetics counter. They are credited with building from the ground up, the modern beauty industry as we know it today.
Where make – up had once been the exclusive domain of street walkers, both women were determined to turn around that uncomfortable mindset. In doing so, these brand guardians also reinvented themselves in the process.
In 2017, there were two major theatrical pieces made about them.
One was the big – budget musical, War Paint (written by Doug Wright, with music by Scott Frankel, and lyrics by Michael Korle). Running on Broadway, it starred Patti LuPone (as Rubinstein) and Christine Ebersole (as Arden).
The other was Lip Service, a chamber comedy written by John Misto. (His other works include Dark Voyager, Harp In The Willow, and The Shoe – Horn Sonata.) Hot on the heels of successful seasons on London’s West End and in Sydney (for the Ensemble Theatre), the show is being presented here by the Melbourne Theatre Company.
Though neither entrepreneur is believed to have met in person, Rubinstein and Arden were fully aware of one another’s professional standing. Misto’s fantasy works on the notion of bringing the pair together face to face. From there, the verbal fireworks fly thick and fast.
Told in a swift series of linear episodes, Misto takes great delight in detailing and intertwining both women’s business and private lives. Driving the play’s narrative full – force, he is a master of the bawdy rejoinder. The playwright also counters Rubinstein’s Eastern European grit with Arden’s North American WASP, drawing on historical quotes and other fast facts to highlight that contrast. Misto’s script allows Rubinstein moments of tremendous vulnerability and pathos, too.
Amanda Muggleton (as Rubinstein) has played an impressive range of strong and independent women in stage shows such as Boston Marriage, Master Class, Shirley Valentine, and The Book Club. Television credits include Prisoner, Richmond Hill and City Homicide.
Playing Arden, Linden Wilkinson’s varied theatre background features A Cheery Soul, Biddies, Neighbourhood Watch, Three Sisters and Wuthering Heights, for film, Looking For Alibrandi and Thank God He Met Lizzie, and TV, A Country Practice, GP, and Murder Call.
(It should be noted that both artists fronted the Sydney season last year as well.)
Rubinstein’s bumbling assistant and personal bodyguard, Patrick O’Higgins (played by Septimus Caton) is the unwitting catalyst who brings them together. (Caton’s resume includes A Comedy Of Errors for Bell Shakespeare, Rake and Laid for television, Wolverine and Peter Pan for film.)
Jennifer Hagan directs with pacing and flair, drawing nuanced and layered performances from the experienced cast. In her care, all three appear in their element, and bring clear definition to their performances. The inherent power struggle exchanged between them, is nicely highlighted throughout the show.
Together, the trio sink their teeth into Misto’s broadly – drawn script with delicious aplomb. Caton, in one of the play’s more reflective moments, shares his beautiful singing voice, too.
Rich in stylised elegance, Lip Service exudes first – class sophistication across the board. This glossy production (managed by Frank Harlow) is a delicious throwback to Hollywood’s golden age, albeit told from a modern perspective.
Framing the space with a white tiled proscenium, Richard Roberts has designed a static yet versatile mid – century set. Slick and smart, his draped vision does much of the crucial groundwork in setting the show’s time and place.
Roberts’ filmic approach is supported by excellent lighting and sound.
Matthew Tunchon’s period – perfect spots and fades, change colour and supply the right mood where necessary. James Paul’s clever sound (based on Daryl Wallis’ design), marks each scene with either an establishing voiceover, period pop song or inventive mock advertisement.
The show’s elegant wardrobe gives each character a specificity necessary to their look and point of view. (Anna Gardiner is responsible for Cerise costuming, with mask design & construction by Derrick Cox.)
Stage Management from Bridget – Rose Dutoit, is fluid and seamless for the show’s entire two – hour running time.
By bringing the story to life in an up close and personal setting, MTC’s Lawler Studio is the ideal venue for Lip Service. The creative team take full advantage of the space, making this an immersive experience for one and all.
It is always exciting when new material is specifically created to showcase strong female protagonists. Lip Service plays for a strictly – limited season until July 28. Catch it while you can.