American Beauty Shop

Emma Bedford

The central conflicts in American Beauty Shop are myriad and complex, perhaps unnecessarily so.
American Beauty Shop

Caitlin Burley and Janine Watson in American Beauty Shop. Photograph by Clare Hawley.

Focusing on the economic downturn in small-town America following the Global Financial Crisis of 2007 and set in its aftermath in regional America, approximately 12 months on, American Beauty Shop focuses on the discontent and disillusionment of the working classes, where underemployment is rife and the odds of bettering ones circumstance are about as good as taking home the lottery.


The fact that it doesn’t feel so different to the America we hear about now, says more about the post-Obama, he-who-shall-not-be-named administration than Ellen Stanistreet’s intelligent costume design.

The central conflicts in American Beauty Shop are myriad and complex, perhaps unnecessarily so. The show opens with Sue played by Amanda Stephens distressing over her employee and friend Meg’s (Charmaine Bingwa) desire to kill a troublesome fly that has made its way in their salon. Sue’s a single mother fighting to keep her small business afloat, dreaming of bigger things. Her daughter Judy, played by Caitlin Burley is a quintessential teen, thick-lipped, white and wide-eyed, her desires for her own future sit at odds with what her mother wants for her. We witness Judy gaining a scholarship to pursue chemistry though she’s devoted to her piano lessons.

Helen, (played by Jill McKay) is a buoyant, older woman, a shop regular, she’s on gossip-and-wisdom terms with all of the other characters and one of the shop’s last remaining loyal customers. In the opening scenes she announces an intention to defect and patronise a much larger, chain store. Helen is a symbol of Sue’s impending doom at the hands of a faceless corporation, the little guys being rapaciously eaten up.

The last of the five-strong cast is Doll, Sue’s troubled older sister, played by Janine Watson. She stumbles in bringing a microcosm of melodrama and angst, adding her desperation to the little room as drama continues to unfold.

Ellen Stranistreet’s set design is flawless; it brings to life a basement hairdressing salon with untrustworthy plumbing, whitewashed walls and the odd disconsolate plant to brighten up the little shop. This is ambitious theatre from a commendably fresh American source with a commitment to the playwright’s original intentions.

In the all female cast, Amanda Stephens Lee’s performance as Sue is a stand out. In a sea of periwinkles it’s nice to uncover an oyster. She delivers her role with the right amount of underlying anger and steeliness. A woman who has endured extenuating circumstances in the past and will, as it happens, continue to do so.

Playwright Dana Lynn Formby’s American Beauty Shop is a collection of themes strung together through rapid-fire dialogue, in this case married to lashings of busy-action scenes that seem surplus to requirements. Hairdressing Sue cuts and styles using a range of photo-realistic products, a credit to the thoroughness of the stage management team and distraction from some interesting characterisations and conflicts as the piece progresses.

With so many themes, relationships, scenes and general, on-stage carry-on, the work feels cluttered. Director McGrath has chosen to be true to the American accents in the piece, which slide around from time to time as the tensions escalate and unintentionally pull focus. It makes one wonder what it would have been like attempting to transpose this work to an Australian setting, replete with brand and other cultural references, some of which gets lost in the lack-of-translation. And then again perhaps the title specifically precludes this.

The stage and seating at Kings Cross Theatre in Sydney’s Kings Cross make American Beauty Shop nothing short of extremely loud and incredible close. The tiny venue’s playing space is roughly 4m x 5m with 100 audience members seated in traverse, unavoidably, collectively lit by the play’s sensitive lighting design, so close we can see the actors occasional burst of spittle spray, we’re a few short meters from the detailed attempts at faux hairdressing, any and all flaws magnified by the unforgiving intimacy, flaws which might otherwise have melted into a tapestry of detailed, realistic direction, were the work to have been presented on a larger, more traditional stage.

2 ½ stars out of 5

American Beauty Shop 
By Dana Lynn Formby
Presented by Some Company and Oleg Pupovac in association with bAKEHOUSE
Directed by Anna McGrath 
Produced by Oleg Pupovac 
Set & Costume Design Ellen Stanistreet 
Sound Design Ella Griffin
Production Manager Sean Nolan
Graphic Design Tara Clark
With Charmaine Bingwa, Caitlin Burley, Jill McKay Amanda Stephens Lee and Janine Watson

Kings Cross Theatre, Sydney
25 August - 16 September 2017

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Emma Bedford is a writer, professional audio describer, and general life enthusiast. Emma is also a production manager for theatre, festivals and major events.