Review: Wine Lips

Wine Lips captures with humour and warmth the exquisite, static torture of the quarter-life crisis

In the green room of the Basement Theatre right now, there’s an experience being shared. It’s one of small moments. There are no deaths, as there are downstairs at Dog, nor is there a devastatingly dark decline of a relationship, as there is across the square in the bowels of the Herald Theatre. What’s unfolding in that cramped, warmly-lit room is the exquisite torture of the quarter-life crisis: the sense of limitless possibility in a limited time frame and how that kind of liberation paralyses more than it frees.

Wine Lips, written by Sam Brooks, centres around 20-something Brit (Chelsea McEwan Millar). It’s the night before she leaves for Melbourne, and she’s come backstage to visit her ex, Scotty (Nic Sampson). She’s leaving to pursue her acting career; he’s preparing to resign himself to a life of mediocrity. They share a couple of bottles of single-digit wine and messily rehash old battles, all of which centre around her prioritising her acting career over him. It’s well-trodden ground for the two, and each argument serves to build on a greater existential struggle rather than representing any real attempt to figure out what went wrong between them.

More than being about a failed relationship, the play captures with real warmth and humour the sharp frustration of working in the arts: what it means to commit to a struggling artform and how it can threaten to wear down your ideals. “I don’t want to look in that mirror and see grey hairs,” Scotty says bluntly to Brit at one stage. He doesn’t want to keep fighting: he wants to be somewhere where he can give up in comfort. He wants a fat wife and a big TV. She’s taking the other extreme, investing everything she has and sacrificing everything else in order to achieve this one dream.

The site-specific nature of the show works well: the play feels like the accumulation of years and years and years of spoken and unspoken fears and are played with metafictional naturalism by the cast. Ideologically at extremes, McEwan Millar plays Brit with a fierce protectiveness: defiant and scared and unapologetic all at once, forming a nice counterpoint to Sampson’s wonderfully deadpan Scotty. He’s the emotional embodiment of a falsely nonchalant shrug. I don’t care, it says, because it’s the only way he knows how to cope.

There are moments where the expository dialogue threatens to become a Tumblr confessional, but for the most part, the potential pity-party atmosphere is lifted by Brook’s introspective wit and the myriad industry Easter eggs that tip its hat to the venue and its core audience (other actors). Also in the background is the fact that Scotty’s in the middle of stage-managing a boy-lesque show, All You Need is Cardboard, which results in a string of reliably awkward entrances by the wide-eyed Max (Geordie Holibar), who needs boots, props and lipstick kisses.

What’s most remarkable about Wine Lips is that it puts onto the stage a conversation. It's the personal essay of theatre. there is no resolution, just a constantly tugging, irresolvable paradox. It acknowledges the crisis, but doesn’t exalt it, nor does it condemn it. Rather, it offers a kind of solace through shared panic. Instead of being a pep talk, it’s a shrug. This is just how it is, it says, while double-fisting more wine like a B-list comp.

Wine Lips plays at Basement Theatre from 26-30 August
(7pm and 9.30pm shows)
Tickets available through iTicket

See also:
Matt Baker for Theatrescenes
Nik Smythe for Theatreview

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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