A Moment On The Lips (Mad March Hare Theatre Company in association with Sydney Independent Theatre Company) runs at the Old Fitzroy Theatre from 25 March – 12 April 2014. By Jonathan Gavin, directed by Mackenzie Steele.
I loved this play from the moment I read the press release. A show that focuses on the bonds between women – sisters, friends, lovers – with an all-female cast? Oh yes. Oh HELLS YES. That is something I am immediately interested in. These are the types of relationships that are desperately under-explored. And call me selfish, but as a twenty-something woman, I am totes going to be into a show about other young women. Strange, I know.
So perhaps I went in with crazy high expectations, but A Moment On The Lips really bummed me out, because I did not get what I wanted from it at all.
There was a line at the end where one of the characters demands of the others, “so what are we going to do now? Sit around and think up clever new ways to be awful to each other?”. I thought that that pretty much captured the whole play. This was a show that basically revolved around women – sisters, friends, lovers – being awful to each other.
Two points. 1) I do not believe that characters have to be likeable for a show to be good. (Which is lucky, because none of the characters in this show are.) 2) I firmly believe that women can be and often are awful to each other. I’ve been awful to other women. Other women have been awful to me. It’s a thing that happens.
But OMG, the women in this show were SO UNRELENTINGLY awful to each other. And that was the problem. You couldn’t understand why they hung around each other: why the friends stayed friends, why the lovers stayed lovers, why the sisters kept talking to each other. You never, ever understood why they couldn’t stay away from each other. And I mean, sure, there are terribly unhealthy relationships where you’re bad for each other and mean to each other and still can’t stay away. But not every friend is a frenemy. I feel like A Moment On The Lips was shooting for “complex, messy female relationships” but ended up at “women being bitches to each other”.
This play didn’t ring true for me at all. Not that every play about young women should, like, replicate my life, but there was very little in here that resonated with me. Take, for example, the character of Rowena (Lucy Goleby), who is a PhD student writing a dissertation. That is not so far from my life. That’s something I recognise at once. But when she starts talking about her thesis, she’s immediately told to stop by the people that are supposed to be the closest to her. That is exactly the opposite of my experience. If people care about you, they’ll listen. Even if they’ve heard you talk about it a million times. Even if they think it’s boring.
That’s quite a specific example of a broader problem with the play. The dynamics of the female relationships just weren’t… right. This is one thing that I think Lena Dunham’s Girls does very well: while some of the characters can be totally unlikeable and are often terrible to each other, you still understand why they hang out with each other. Hannah and Jessa, for instance, have both been narcissistic and self-centred and showed little care for the feelings of others, but you still understand a) why their friends are still friends with them, and b) why they are still friends with each other. For all its other faults, this is also something I think Sex and the City did reasonably well at. Teen girl drama Pretty Little Liars has four girl leads, and while it has a spectacularised hyperbolic storyline, it is great at female friendship and its complexities. I didn’t find that in A Moment On The Lips at all, and it made me so, so sad.
The character I was the most engaged with was Emma (Claudia Barrie), probably because her relationships were the most complex and nuanced. She was the only one I really believed felt genuine affection for her friends: one of the play’s most accurate moments came, I thought, when she lied to her artist friend Victoria (Beth Aubrey) about liking her exhibition when she’d actually hated it. Her storyline, however, which involved her being stalked and almost murdered by someone who had seen her on TV, did not ring true. Other storylines did – the selfish Victoria reliant on her career being funded by her older sister Jenny (Sarah Aubrey), and being resentful when that money was taken away – but the relationships felt so one-dimensional that the story too became unbelievable.
I think the problem was that we don’t see any of the characters being really genuinely nice to each other until right at the end of the play. And that is just not how female friendship works. Sure, sometimes friendship is performed, but most of the time? Women like hanging out with other women. Genuinely. Really. For me, my female friendships are the most cherished relationships in my life. And if you’re going to do a show that centres around the bonds between women – whether they’re sisters, friends, or lovers – the pleasures of those bonds are something that need to be recognised.