Lippy (Young Vic) – 'devilishly smart'

Last year’s Fringe First Award-winner has transferred to the Young Vic

David Heap in Lippy
David Heap in Lippy
© Tristram Kenton

On July 12 2000, a landlord found four bodies on his property in Leixlip, Ireland; three in the sitting room, one in the kitchen. The corpses were in an advanced state of decomposition, but there were no marks on them and no evident external injuries. Every identifying document in the house had been pulped.

Death as a riddle; a problem to be solved. Investigators determined that the four women – three sisters and an aunt – had starved themselves in a suicide pact. They had been dead a month, and hadn’t been seen in public for three. They left no explanation behind.

Lippy picks at the loose threads in that Holmesian process of forensics, pathology and lip-reading, questioning the certainty of a verdict based on probability and guesswork. That process put words into other people’s mouths, thoughts in their heads. As does art. As does theatre.

It’s a devilishly smart piece, with a form that illustrates and enhances its content. You hear about Lippy before you see it. It opens with its own post-show discussion, a kind of forensic analysis of the play we’ve supposedly just seen. An actor and a company associate explain the context of the case and talk us through their aesthetic decisions. Essentially, they interpret the show for us – but without their explanation, the piece that then follows would be indecipherable.

The actor in question (David Heap) worked as a lip reader on that Leixlip case, and the discussion elaborates on the craft, with witty nods to pop culture. It’s an imprecise science, as a ‘live’ demonstration proves, but a necessary one. Interpretation stands in for truth, but the very process of interpreting can itself distort that truth.

Directors Ben Kidd and Bush Moukarzel smartly draw your attention to the things you don’t hear: the usher whispering in the host’s ear; the empty chair meant for an actor that doesn’t show; moments when the microphones slip or speakers get drowned out by Adam Welsh‘s distracted technician. It’s funny, a carefully orchestrated shambles that neatly punctures the pomposity and pretension of egotistical artists, but it makes its point like a sharp rebuke. Whosoever gets to speak controls the story. The inaudible become invisible. Power is volume. Volume is power.

In the second half, an act without words, we see the four women stalking around like ghosts – empty plates on the table, flowers slowly dying. They starve in silence and scream silent screams. They are spoken for and spoken over. The eldest (Joanna Banks) is blown across the room in a blizzard of paper. Blood pours down another’s chin, as if she’s cut her own tongue out. It’s imagery so chilling that it burns like dry-ice, all the more unnerving for being so elliptic.

However, there’s also something clever-clever about it and, as one overlaid sound follows another, you sense the slightest hint of smugness or showboating. It may be self-critical, aware of its own mediating process and the egotism of looking at lip-reading over anything more pressing, but acknowledging such problems doesn’t solve – or, indeed, absolve – them.

Lippy runs at the Young Vic until 14th March. Click here for more information and to book tickets.