Although over the years they have worked with a wide range of talented directors, designers, technicians and administrators, essentially Lipservice is a two woman operation. Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding established the company in Manchester in the mid 1980s and over the years it has developed something of the status of ‘an institution’, at least on the small scale community/entertainment orientated touring circuit in the North of England.
In some ways Fox and Ryding are a classic comedy double act, even down to their physical appearance, with Fox long and lanky and Ryding a shorter more solid presence. However, rather than stand up or sketches, as indicated by previous show titles such as Very Little Women, Withering Looks, Move Over Moriarty, Jane Bond and B Road Movie, they specialise in comic pastiches/parodies of works of literature or film. This might provoke comparisons with the television pastiche/parodies of The Comic Strip Presents of the 1990s but Lipservice’s style has more in common with earlier forms of British Comedy leading back via Monty Python and The Goodies to The Goon Show of the 1950s and 1960s and perhaps even earlier to Joyce Grenfell and Ruth Draper. In line with this tradition, in Lipservice productions the surreal, the witty and the absurd sit alongside unabashedly silly. As importantly, like these earlier comics, they play on and play with the conventions of the mediums in which they are working in a gleeful and mildly trangressive fashion that draws in the audience as co-conspirators into the game.
With Inspector Norse their target is the sort of ‘Scandi Noir’ represented on television by The Killing and Wallender and in literature by (amongst others) the novels of Stieg Larsson The plot revolves around the murder of one of the male members of ‘Fabadaba’ (named Stieg Stiegson? Or something similar), a highly successful pop group of the 1970s and 1980s comprising of two men and two women. The murder takes place in the barn of ‘Freya’ the brunette female singer one (whose name no one can remember) who disappears half way through the show, thereby repeating the disappearance of the ‘blonde’ one ‘Anita’ (remembered by everybody as the ‘more attractive’ of the two women and the ‘better singer’) a few years previously. These events are investigated by Inspector Norse played by Ryding in a messy brown wig and a ‘nordic’ jumper and clearly modelled on Sofie Grabol’s Sara Lund in The Killing, with Fox playing her male sidekick and with the pair constantly doubling as a series of other characters throughout include two talking mooses (is that the plural of moose?)
There are some clever red herrings, surprises and ‘sleepers’ in the plot set up including the dangers of not being properly trained in ‘Nordic Walking’ which is introduced at the start of the show and is crucial to the dénouement. Nevertheless, the whole enterprise is really just an excuse for a romp through the clichés of this crime genre and a series of totally daft verbal and visual jokes about all things Scandinavian from Ikia to Trolls
Sequences include some very funny film of Fabadaba in their glory years and some surreal footage of ‘Anita’ rambling on prophetically just before her disappearance. However, much of the visual humour is ‘low tech’ in a wonderfully inventive and eccentric sort of way and with a keen eye for the comic detail. One of my favourite sequences involves a wittily staged car journey in which the bumper gradually accumulates a series of animals (from mice to moose) they accidently run over.
The main set is a copy of a giant (roughly 10x 6 feet) mocked up ‘book’ entitled ‘Inspector Norse’ and complete with remaindered shop sticker. This opens out into a series of ‘pages’ that represent backdrops for different locations with the odd working window or drop down desk. It is somehow part of the charm of this (clearly rather heavy) construction is the fact when Fox and Ryding ‘change scenes’ it often seems on the verge of toppling over as they struggle with the stage weights needed to keep it in place.
In fact this is part of an overall deliberate ‘DIY aesthetic’ whereby presumably playing on the general obsession with Sara Lund’s jumpers, the company put out a call for North West knitting groups and potential audiences to make and donate bits of the set and props. Knitted feet, a heart, some rather sparkly lungs and some intestines feature in the autopsy scene and a sequence at the end of the show revolves around knitted fireworks. For the Freya’s ‘cottage’ backdrop these donations include everything from knitted curtains, cats, mice candles, telephones, coffee pots and coffee mugs (plus knitted coffee) to a cuckoo clock and during the interval the audience are invited on stage to help transform a tree with knitted leaves and to get a closer look at these cleverly realised objects.
Comments made by Fox and Ryding, speaking as ‘themselves’ suggests that this ‘community involvement’ might be part of Lipservice’s response to a push from the Arts Council to engage audiences in more ‘direct’ forms of participation that the sort of comic complicity on which their work has always depended. There was also a ‘craft’ table in the theatre foyer from which we could get material to make our own ‘sporklers’ to shake (with appropriate noises and comments taught us by Ryding) in the firework scene. The making and displaying of sporklers proved very popular with the mainly middle aged and older audience at the Grand. In fact some people got rather pushy and competitive about it (I’m sorry Mr in seat 6, whatever you say mine was obviously miles better than yours). This was perhaps partly because Fox and Ryding created a lovely easy relationship with the audience and a warm inclusive atmosphere that also allowed for an inspired bit of comic business whereby (via the device of a knitted spanner) one spectator is set up as the prime suspect in the murder, as ‘audience participation gone too far’.
If Ryding and Fox make digs at the at the demand for ‘meaningful participation’ as Arts Council policy, there is something about way they drew us into this as a joke and translated into this into knitting and making sporklers, that is slyly and gently subversive. I have always thought of Lipservice as a feminist theatre company but rather than indicating any political content in their work, by this I simply mean a company set up and run by women who happen to be feminists. I have no evidence of whether or not this is the case either way and its possible that Fox and Ryding might be outraged by my presumption. If this is the case I apologise, as much as anything this assumption is based on the fact of them setting up this company in the 1980s (at a time of proliferation of founding of ‘women’s’/feminist companies) and having kept it going for all these years. It is also based on their evident delight in the campness of bad wigs and wobbly scenery, funny voices obvious doubling and cross gender casting that plays with stereotypes of masculinity and femininity from different periods in ways that underlines them as stereotypes. In this particular instance it is also based on the pleasure they take in exploiting what you can do with the humble, domestic craft of knitting when you let the imagination run free.