Review – The Ugly One, Royal Court

Wednesday 18 June 2008

In spite of many unsolicited entreaties, the Whingers have never considered having facial surgery.

Andrew and Phil have convinced themselves that their copious lines attractively describe lives fully-lived and display character. The many grooves and crannies have been etched into their faces over many years of impatiently sitting in darkened auditoriums (though not this particular evening – see below) watching bad theatre, learning of National Theatre running times and, just occasionally, from laughter.

The only “lifts” they hanker after are those that might result in better sight-lines at the Old Vic; the only “cuts” they entertain are those which should be made to plays which ramble on far beyond the limits of the Whingers’ ever-receding attention spans.

But Marius von Mayenburg‘s The Ugly One at the Royal Court can’t be accused of needing a nip and tuck: not only does it come in at a sparse 55 minutes, but everything else has been pared down to the bone too.

There’s no set, the back walls of the stage are exposed and the general detritus that occupies a backstage area is in full view. A few tatty bench seats which the actors occupy throughout the play are all that constitutes the design although presumably – like a Tracy Emin bed or Andrew’s boudoir – this is all artfully considered mess (designer Jeremy Herbert). The house lights even remain on throughout the performance: is this to break down that pesky fourth wall between the audience and performer? Why? Perhaps they just couldn’t be bothered. Oh well, at least we had light by which to write and by which to read the programme.

We’ll run that by you again in case you weren’t paying attention: and by which to read the programme.

When did the Royal Court start doing programmes? Why weren’t we told? One used only to be able to pick up a free cast list or buy a copy of the “text”. But on Monday night you could also choose to buy a programme. How civilized. Biographies and three pictures which could have been of the rehearsal or the production – it would be impossible to tell in this production.

The printing was all black-on-white (no pink on black) and there was no Theatre Royal Haymarket gold embossing on the front and no eight page essay from Michael Frayn. The typeface was a bit on the small side for Phil’s eyes but you can’t expect miracles. And it was just one pound.

Anyway, this was a bit of a shock as this is definitely one of those “text” productions. No costumes, wigs and so on – or if there were they were so good that you couldn’t tell they were. In which case they were a bit of a waste of money.

Anyway, the enthusiastic reviews for The Ugly One had been enough to draw the Whingers back to the Royal Court after quite some absence – a hiatus which we shall put down to “artistic differences” and which this play will frankly do little to pour oil on.

Lette (Michael Gould – excellent) plays the titular character who is apparently so ugly that the company he works for forbids him from promoting his latest invention: the 2Ck high voltage connector.

So he resorts to surgery which makes him so handsome that even his wife, who had previously considered him hideous, is unable to resist him. Soon everyone wants to look like Lette and his surgeon Scheffler (Simon Paisley Day, also very good) is churning out Lette-likes even more prolifically than Matthew Warchus does in his busiest week.

The main trouble with it is that once you know the story (which you will if you’ve read any of the reviews, including this one) there isn’t much more to it.

So, we have a play about the superficiality of beauty (possibly, we weren’t sure) using none of the usual conventions of theatre to dress it up for an audience. Mmmm yes, very clever, but where’s the set? Come to that, where are the costumes? Call this theatre?

And where is the on-stage food? One character says “I’m peeling some fruit”, but he didn’t even seem to bother with miming the action. Phil was very confused, but saw a potential new chapter in his long overdue food-on-stage thesis.

The actors play multiple roles but all are called by the same names and played without changing their performance. For instance, Amanda Drew plays three roles: a wife, a surgeon’s assistant and a rich old lady, all called Fanny (insert your own joke here).

But after all these superficial ramblings were the Whingers impressed? Well not overly, they both agreed the acting was pretty good all round but had substantial reservations about the play. Was it the translation by Maja Zade? True, it ripped through the story at a fairly cracking pace but a lot of it sounded like it had suffered in translation – it’s one of those plays that you know is translated from something else even if you don’t know it. And the staccato dialogue (no-one ever seems to get to say more than one sentence at a time) gets very tiring.

As for being the “scalpel sharp comedy” that the publicity claims it to be, the Whingers jury was agreed that it didn’t really even get off the starting block. “You’ve got a face like stale mince” isn’t something the Whingers will be adding to their repertoire of bon mots even though Phil could think of at least one person he could readily apply it to. Perhaps their bon mot pantry is over-stocked at the moment as they are currently passing off Enid Bagnold’s sparkling dialogue in The Chalk Garden as their own, but that’s a bit unfair as nothing could live up to that.

And whilst the Whingers are all for brevity The Ugly One seemed slightly sketchy. It rips through themes of identity, the superficiality of beauty and materialism but even in its 55 minutes it succeeds in sounding repetitious and the closing. “I’ve missed me” dialogue was just plain irritating.

This is the play Phil confused with That Face thinking that this was the lauded Royal Court play about facial surgery (currently running at the Duke of Yorks) “It’s only 55 minutes” was Phil’s incorrect selling point when he tried to get Andrew to go and see That Face’s west end transfer. It’s an understandable mistake (well, to Phil anyway) The Ugly One could easily borrow it’s title.

The Whingers turned out into Sloane Square in full daylight with plenty of time for after-show drink to chew over the fat, or lack of rather, in The Ugly One.

Anyway, it was certainly life-changing so expect not to recognise the Whingers should you run into them soon. Andrew is off to get his face remodelled to look like Phil’s. Phil is going to invest an arm and a leg (Andrew’s of course not his own) in La Prairie skin cream and both Whingers are throwing away their once uber-fashionable fascinators (sooo old hat) and downsizing with the Fern Britton inspired latest must-have cosmetic accessory – gastric bands.


The wine seemed to be very expensive indeed, even by London theatre bar standards: over £15 for two large glasses of Rioja. Can that be right? Sloane Square is rubbish for pubs but after the show we wandered around and found the Duke of Wellington a five minute walk away in a very posh neighbourhood but the drinks were half the price and you could sit outside. Don’t say this blog isn’t useful.

3 Responses to “Review – The Ugly One, Royal Court”

  1. Tim Watson Says:

    The lights were left on, when the play was Upstairs, so that, in a particular scene, the actors could stare at a hapless audience member (as if in a mirror) and say how beautiful he/she was.

    I only wish Ms Drew had meant it and that I could have believed her.

  2. I think it a good thing that when I snort whilst reading your reviews. Keep at it!

  3. Ali Pour Issa Says:

    A Note on The Ugly One by Marus von Mayenburg
    Ali Pour Issa
    The play shows capitalistic viewpoints of a society in which people should be more competitive, although we do not hear a lot about the financial matter. We come across the question of what the key to progress is for jobs. In the business world the salesmen are more important than the inventors. So, what is significant in this world? The answer is neither knowledge nor wealth but beautiful faces. Male bodies are the subject of this play. With hindsight, feminist film theory has emphasized the notion of “the gaze.” According to this theory, the movie-going experience, and even the cinematic “apparatus,” is coded male. In both subject matter and techniques of filming, movies (generalised to plays and works of art) encapsulates the desire of men to look at women, however, in this play the role is vice versa. Moreover, this scopophilia is associated with the male body. At this time, the male body is the matter of selling the products of the company and men are worried about their bodies; on the contrary, women are more confident with their bodies, even the 73 year old lady is good looking. Although the male body is interestingly the target of criticism, there is no businesswoman in the company and we still see the traditional viewpoint of male bread winner in this society and women do not seem to be understanding human beings because after Lette and other men had surgery to have their faces changed into an Adonis like face, women cannot distinguish them and it does not matter for them who is who. Soon after the women were eager to have an affair with a man whom has that gorgeous face, although we know that they just changed their face neither their body, voice, nor their manner.
    Gradually all men became to look like one another because the surgeon who introduced himself as an artist learned to create just this one particular face which is extraordinarily beautiful. The work of the surgeon in the play reminds me of the works of Andy Warhol which is referred as ready-made. Similarly, faces of Lette like in the play are comparable with the work of Andy Warhole, i.e. Marilin Monro. Obviously this copied face presents the master picture which has lost its authenticity. We witness how Lette and the gay man who changed their faces are losing their identity and consequently fell in love with their own self, like Narcissus.
    The rhythm of play is excellent and director Ramin Gray achieves this effect through a pared down production in which actors instantaneously change character or switch location without even moving. Gray has chosen to stage it as if it is a rehearsal. The Cast and crew in their own casual rehearsal clothes are on stage playing with a shuttlecock and chatting as the house comes in, coming down to talk to friends in the audience until the play suddenly starts. The stage is divided into two parts, one part is surrounded by the drawn rectangular shape on the floor, which all actors play in this area, and the second part is the rest of the stage which is shows the backstage. Using the rectangular bare area and its minimalistic decoration, which consists purely of three benches, a swivel chair and a plastic bag, this is so clever and works extremely well with the dramaturgical side of the play because of the script’s dream-laden mood. However, the messy background, which consists of scaffolding in the back drop, etc and a bag in front of the stage, ruins the minimalistic stage and shows the stage as a kind of art installation; moreover, in much the same way the presence of the stage manager on the stage does not help the play neither functionally nor aesthetically. Lette is the only one who crosses the line and goes to the second part of the stage to drink water after his speech; otherwise, it would not be used at all. Yet I would like to suggest that we could have a better stage functionally and aesthetically if the rectangular part of the stage was shown solely.
    Lighting of the play is also clever and it works very well because it remains steady without any changes and also the light over the audience is on. Furthermore, it certainly helps us to get closer to the characters, for instance when Lette offers women in the hall whether they would like to have an affair with him. That instant interaction with the audience makes the audience more settled and happy to be involved.
    The performance is very impressive and has a great cast which keeps you thinking after watching. The Ugly One is so close to everyone because of its simplicity, intelligence, and wisdom.

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