Tommy is scared of everything. Especially the kids at school who would call him gay if they saw him putting on lipstick.
Jordan isn’t scared of anything. He’s not scared that he likes the way Tommy looks in lipstick. Really, he’s not. Helen Aluko and April Hughes play two teenage boys in Lily Shahmoon’s timely story of young hearts and the rules which surround us all.
Helen Aluko’s previous theatre credits include Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Palace Theatre), Doctor Faustus (Royal Exchange Theatre) and Beauty and the Beast (Theatre Royal Stratford East). We spoke to Helen about how she tackled playing a teenage boy in her latest role …
I’m Helen Aluko. My parents are originally from Nigeria. I was born and raised in South East London.
Can we have a quick synopsis of what Lipstick is about?
Lipstick follows two teenage boys, Tommy and Jordan, who are confronting the unspoken rules and ideas that surround us all – it’s about young hearts facing a big scary world and being told what they can and can’t do. It all starts when Jordan sees Tommy wearing lipstick, and it raises some really interesting questions about gender roles and the restrictions we all face.
You have previously worked with April Hughes who plays Tommy, when you were both in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, does your friendship make it easier to build chemistry and play such vulnerable roles?
It makes it so easy. Playing such vulnerable roles can be a challenge but I feel so confident and comfortable to explore Jordan because I’m doing it alongside April. We worked together for 2 years at Harry Potter and practically lived together in our dressing room, so the trust is already there. She’s also a wonderful and very giving actress, so that helps.
The story is unique in that the complexities of gender are not often told in this way and then for two women to be playing teenage boys just adds another dimension to it, what made you decide to take on the role?
I’ve never done anything like this before. Lily has written the characters so beautifully – and had specifically written for them to be played by women, so I was excited to explore what she had created. There are so many challenges in the piece, but that makes it fun and I love a challenge. It’s a very intimate and delicate play, so knowing that I am working with people I’ve worked with before made accepting the role much easier.
You play ‘Jordan’ tell us about him and how his relationship with Tommy shapes the story …
Jordan seems really confident when we first meet him, but he has a lot of issues going on at home with his family and has no one to talk to about it. He finds a kind of soulmate in Tommy, and uses their friendship as an escape – but they’re both facing real challenges, so can’t always be what the other one wants them to be. They both go on real learning curves through the play.
How did you prepare yourself to play Jordan; how did you develop and define his characteristics?
I’ve definitely been thinking a lot about the similarities and differences between men and women’s experience of the world – it’s so interesting, I think there’s so much aspiration for people not to be restricted by gender, and that’s a lot of what the play is talking about. It’s important to remember that everyone is different, so the most important thing for me is to really understand who my Jordan is and what makes him who he is.
The production proudly supports the organisation Diversity Role Models with proceeds from one of the performances being donated to support their work and a post-show talk on March 12th. Can you tell us a little more about the charity and the impact the show will have for those the charity supports?
Diversity Role Models is an amazing charity that does workshops in schools with the aim of embedding inclusion and empathy in the next generation. It’s a perfect match with this play – Tommy isn’t going to school when we first meet him, as he is afraid of being bullied for being different. Knowing that we’ll be supporting their work in this way feels like a cherry on top!
Why should we come out and see the play?
It’s new writing and something that feels really exciting and different. It’s so great that the Southwark Playhouse is supporting the play, and April and I will be doing our very best to do it justice. Come and support us. I [also] hope it reminds people that the most important thing is to love yourself and be true to yourself. We are all so often told what we can and can’t do or be, but really, that’s not for others to decide.
What’s next for you?
Who knows. I’d love to do more new writing and I’m craving more TV and film opportunities. More more more.
When you’re not acting you are…
Singing, writing, auditioning, doing workshops, keeping fit, babysitting, teaching, the list goes on. I try to stay active so I’m ready and appreciative of when the next opportunity comes along.
Lipstick runs at Southwark Playhouse until 28th March 2020. Find out more and book tickets here.