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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Ugly One
The Ugly One Re-Opens

Re-opening as part of the Royal Courtís Upstairs Downstairs season, The Ugly One (CurtainUp Londonís best new play of 2007), receives a much-deserved second run. In transferring to the larger auditorium, the only change to the production is that Simon Paisley Day takes on the roles of Scheffler in place of the excellent Mark Lockyer.

As before, there is a clever dichotomy between play and production which serves to highlight the textís themes. A play exploring the superficiality of society is portrayed with no external artifice whatsoever. Whilst the charactersí lives are governed by their appearances and their surface judgements of others, the stage illusion makes no attempt to represent them with props or makeup. Instead, in the stripped-back set, everything is evoked by acting, from Letteís "catastrophic" face surgically transformed into perfection to the actorsí breathtakingly immediate role switches.

This scathing black comedy looks at identity and individuality, before mercilessly descending into narcissism. In its new run, this bitingly sharp play gains much-merited exposure to a larger audience.

Current Production Notes
With: Amanda Drew, Michael Gould, Frank McCusker, Simon Paisley Day
Re-reviewed by Charlotte Loveridge at the performance on 12th June 2008 at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs at the Royal Court, Sloane Square, London SW1
Booking to: 28th June 2008
Other details as for 2007

The Original Review by Lizzie Loveridge

I look like dog food.— Lette
The Ugly One
Michael Gould as Lette and Amanda Drew as Fanny. (Photo: Marc Brenner)
Under the artistic direction of Dominic Cooke, the Royal Court is presenting a season of international playwrights. The Ugly One is a British premiere for a play from German playwright Marius von Mayenburg, directed by Ramin Gray. It is an original work on the subject of appearance and identity which so obsesses those living in the twenty first century. The basic premise here is that the inventor Lette (Michael Gould) is thought to be too unattractive to sell his own invention at a convention in Switzerland, that is until he undergoes aesthetic surgery (formerly known as cosmetic surgery, formerly known as plastic surgery).

The play's construction is very challenging for the cast and director — and at times, challenging for the audience. Three of the four actors take on multiple roles with no change of costume or makeup or even name. Only the content of their speeches gives us a clue as to who is speaking. Although The Ugly One is only 55 minutes long, you will need every inch of your concentration, but this kind of theatre fully warrants the effort.

The plot: Lette works for Scheffler (Mark Lockyer) and finds that Karlmann (Frank McCusker) has been selected to give the presentation at a convention. Scheffler gives Lette the hard message that this is because he is too ugly. Lette consults his wife Fanny (Amanda Drew) who tells him that he really is ugly. It seems that Lette was oblivious to his lack of beauty. Lette consults a surgeon Scheffler (Mark Lockyer) and has an operation which turns him into a very beautiful man. Now Lette finds that not only must he present his invention, he is also expected to humour a 73 old investor Fanny (Amanda Drew) as her sexual plaything. This Fanny, a veteran of the aesthetic surgeon's knife and probably addicted to this, has a son Karlmann. When Lette has his face changed, other things change in his life too. Women throw themselves at him sexually. However, who is it who owns Lette's new face? Is it Lette or Scheffler the surgeon? When clones of Lette's new face start appearing in town, it gets complicated.

The set is the first example I have seen of complete post modern theatre staging. The lighting designer sits at the side of the stage with laptop in view. The chairs onstage are the same as those the audience sits on, the floor is chalked out stripped back to a pre-production condition, and to the rear is a clothes rack of costumes which will never be worn. A gantry is onstage. This set in its unfinished state makes no concession to appearance. When Lette is operated on, the surgeon's back is to the audience shielding the patient from view but the sounds of the operation are there— the drill, the slap into place, the shouted instructions from the surgeon. I recoiled.

The cast are stellar actors. I'm a huge fan of Mark Lockyer, going back to when he thrilled my children with his Christmas plays at Greenwich when he played Rupert of Henzau in The Prisoner of Zenda. He's a comic genius; his timing and small detailed actions are brilliant. A tiny shrug or a throw away line will have the audience in stitches, but thankfully not of the post operative kind. He excels as the egotistical Schefflers, one the company boss, the other the arrogant, but slickly persuasive, specialist surgeon.

Michael Gould is the hapless Lette. The playwright makes it clear that there will be no concession to appearance. Lette is not to wear ugly makeup. He must not change after the operation except that I think he combs his hair when the bandages (a plastic bag) come off. It is Gould's acting alone which conveys the fresh faced, new found beauty. Lette is a man blown around by events rather than one controlling them. This is expressed in the first scenes when Lette sits in an office chair, wheeling over to talk to different characters, switching between them.

Amanda Drew plays three characters called Fanny, Lette's loving wife, the man eating rich woman and assistant to Scheffler the surgeon. In conversation with Lette, she has to switch from shock at the discovery that her husband has become "un homme fatal" to Fanny his 73 year old mistress, while sitting in the same chair. This is no mean feat! Frank McCusker's underplayed, calm Karlmanns seem to overlap not just with each other but ultimately with Lette as the look impinges on their identity.

The Ugly One is the kind of theatre which engages at every level. The issues will be discussed for days. Is it possible to divorce ourselves from our looks? Will people always judge by looks? Is surgery to change what we look like a good idea? Will this change us in other ways? Do people only get on in business if they look good? How much of what is the essential us is to do with our appearance? As theatre Marius von Mayenburg's latest play with its sharp, jabbing prose is as stimulating as it is relevant and a must see.

Written by Marius von Mayenburg
Translated by Maja Zade
Directed by Ramin Gray

Starring: Amanda Drew, Mark Lockyer, Michael Gould, Frank McCusker
Design: Jeremy Herbert
Lighting: Charles Balfour
Sound: Nick Powell
Running time: 55 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking to 13th October 2007
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 22nd September performance at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court, Sloane Square, London SW1 (Tube: Sloane Square)

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