Omnibus Theatre, London – until 24 March 2019
A catwalk divides the seats at the Omnibus Theatre on which drag queen in green sequined dress is lip synching. However, this isn’t a Friday-night cabaret performance of a power ballad or pop song, instead she tells the story of an Iranian woman, blinded and disfigured in an acid attack by a jealous man.
Mixing contrasting forms with narrative is a clever and powerful feature of Sarah Chew’s play based on her real experiences when her six-week, Arts Council-funded cultural exchange trip to Iran coincided with the Green uprising.
While Orla (Siobhan O’Kelly) is in Iran, her best friend Mark (drag artist Nathan Kiley) is putting the finishing touches to their new club back in Soho. As the story of Orla’s trip unfolds, Kiley plays all the other characters as well as Mark who leaves long, amusingly candid voicemail messages for her.
It is inventive storytelling mixing burlesque, drag and vaudeville with more traditional forms, and at times it feels like a fairytale – a dark, modern fairytale laced with very real modern life horrors.
When Orla leaves for Iran, the flight safety demo, narrated by O’Kelly and performed by Kiley, is part cabaret performance, part warning about the cultural differences and how to stay safe in Iran. Accompanying her on her trip is a posh woman represented by a handbag and a loud woman represented by a horn. At the Tehran hotel, the receptionist is an envelope fashioned to look like a sort of mouth.
Chew’s dialogue is at times witty and humorous – “A whiff of semtex coming off her accent” – and there are many laugh out loud moments.
Voyage of self-discovery
But Iran, for Orla, is a revelation, a voyage of cultural and self-discovery, an educational and traumatic experience against a backdrop of danger.
Mixing the more colourful and camp with the harsh realities of inequality for the Iranian women Orla befriends is a powerful storytelling device.
Creativity, art and self-expression are censored and breaking the rules dangerous but the women find a way and the more time Orla spends with her Iranian hosts the more she is forced to question her own feelings and ideas.
Nathan Kiley and Siobhan O’Kelly in Lipstick A Fairy Tale of Iran. Photo: Flavia Fraser-Cannon
There is a powerful irony in that while Orla is almost entirely covered, as Iranian culture dictates, she is really seen – and sees herself.
Lipstick: A Fairy Tale of Iran is clever, entertaining and powerful and I’m giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
It is one hour 45 minutes without an interval and is at the Omnibus Theatre until March 24 go and see it.