Review: Lip Service (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Aug 17 – Sep 30, 2017
Playwright: John Misto
Director: Nicole Buffoni
Cast: Tim Draxl, Amanda Muggleton, Linden Wilkinson
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Helena Rubinstein founded one of the world’s first cosmetics companies, whilst living in Australia early last century. Subsequently establishing herself as a businesswoman of international fame and fortune, we meet her later in life, in John Misto’s Lip Service, picking up from when she meets Patrick O’Higgins, who becomes her personal assistant, friend and surrogate son. Rubinstein’s extraordinarily flamboyant personality and a concomitant acerbity is the centrepiece of the play. Misto appropriately eschews sentimentality in this biography of a very hard woman, crafting instead lines of dialogue that are relentless, and exquisite, in their bitchiness, for a show that proves itself tremendously funny by any standard.

It is a story of unbridled ambition and searing ruthlessness. Misto uses Rubinstein’s rivalries with Elizabeth Arden and Charles Revson (of Revlon fame) to reveal a woman of remarkable intelligence and fortitude, along with unmistakable flaws, creating for our heroine, a magnificent aura of mythical proportions. It is possible that direction and design elements of the production could deliver something more elaborate, but Misto’s script is strong enough to hold its own, especially with a leading lady of dazzling charm at its helm.

Amanda Muggleton plays Rubinstein with a great deal of diligence. Her approach is considered and precise, so that every hilarious quip hits its mark, but there is also a definite soulfulness in her portrayal that has us endeared throughout. Opening night is not quite flawlessly polished, but we go away impressed by both Muggleton and Rubinstein, wishing to be entertained further, even after 2-and-a-half hours of incessant laughter. Also memorable are supporting actors, Tim Draxl as O’Higgins and Linden Wilkinson as Arden, both with comic ability and remarkable presences that ensure our satisfaction.

To reach such heights of commercial success, sacrifices must be made. Some might say that Helena Rubinstein goes to her grave not knowing true happiness, but it is undeniable that her accomplishments are greater than most could even imagine. In Lip Service, we watch her give a poorly received speech at a college, about work being the only real salvation. Mere mortals might be able to experience love and other simple joys, and it is regrettable that those pleasures had eluded Rubinstein, but what she was able to achieve as a Jewish woman in the twentieth century was exceptional, and the enduring legacy she leaves behind is a phenomenon that far exceeds any reasonable criterion. Few would dare follow her path, but the inspiration one can draw from it, is inexhaustible and divine.

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