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Lippy, Traverse Theatre, review: 'Dense, difficult, chewy stuff'

Edinburgh Festival 2014: Provides plenty to get your teeth into

Dead Centre’s play was a hit at Dublin's Fringe; written and directed by Ben Moukarzel with Ben Kidd also on directorial duties, it’s dense, difficult, chewy stuff.

We’re welcomed to a post-show discussion, where a chummy yet chippy Moukarzel interviews an older actor (Dan Reardon), who is also a lip-reader. His experiences as the latter - including helping the police decipher CCTV footage in a case where four women committed suicide - were the inspiration for the play we’ve just, um, not watched. They discuss lip-reading in movies, clips projected on screen (from Casino, 2001: A Space Odyssey) and the actor demonstrates his lip-reading skills - or lack thereof. This dark art, always part guesswork, is a dangerous one; “a man can be convicted because of what his lips say” he points out.

Behind the screen, next, we see that police case - three nieces and their aunt - who sealed themselves in their flat and starved themselves to death, after shredding all their documents into many bin bags. Some of these float, like balloons. It is powerfully creepy.

There’s a treacly, dreamy heaviness as they prepare for death; empty plates are smashed, they speak of a “higher calling”, masculine devil voices boom from their mouths. A Catholic atmosphere of penance pervades; there’s a disgust at the bodily, solitary nature of death. The actors are all impressively lazer-focused, even if the piece has become painfully leaden. The lip-reader is there too - trying to make sense of it all? Or putting words into their mouths? At one point a woman accusingly says, “it didn’t happen like this.”

The final portion is a close-up film of an old woman’s mouth, as she muses on death and remembers her life - and a particular childhood trauma. It’s Beckettian as hell, but compelling nonetheless.

What to make of it all? Lippy offers no obvious conclusions. It’s bold in its dramatic textures, but it’s hard work and hard to love. The tantalisation of the first portion - which really does hook you in - needn’t be neatly solved, but its synapse-firing brightness does feel almost wasted on a second half slog. Lippy will be many people’s idea of theatrical purgatory, but if you enjoy chasing down meanings within a play that is deeply concerned with what we might, or might not, be saying, it provides plenty to get your teeth into.

To 24 Aug; traverse.co.uk