‘I love me’: The Ugly One @ Park Theatre

Written in German by Marius von Mayenburg, The Ugly One received its UK premiere in 2007 at the Royal Court. Buckland Theatre Company and the Park Theatre now present a new production in the Park’s smaller 90 space. This play is directed by the 2016 winner of the prestigious JMK Award for young directors, Roy Alexander Weise.

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Lette works in plugs. His life seems normal – he is happily married, and doing well in his firm. But then he is told that he may not present a new product at a convention because his face is ‘unacceptable’. It turns out that Lette’s visage is unspeakably ugly, and no one ever told him. His wife confesses to only ever looking at his left eye. Horrified, Lette decides to undergo plastic surgery. In a bizarre turn of events, the intensive operation transforms Lette into the most beautiful man in the world, altering his career, his relationships and the lives of those around him forever.

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This high-octane production features a talented and collaborative ensemble cast. However, each actor gives an individually praiseworthy performance. Charlie Dorfman, though his reactions at being called horrifically ugly by his wife and boss do not at first seem realistic, develops into a captivating Lette. Indra Ové is a relentless bundle of energy; her exaggerated portrayals of Lette’s wife Fanny, and later, an older exec Lette strikes up an affair with (confusingly also called Fanny), seem to sizzle.

Authoritative and no-nonsense T’Nia Miller is boss Scheffler, and hilariously unprofessional plastic surgeon, you guessed it, Scheffler. Arian Nik, a recent Mountview graduate makes his professional stage debut in this show. Excellently portraying Karlmann, the plug firm’s assistant who aspires to a higher position, Nik also plays another character called Karlmann, the exec’s vain gay son (a stereotypical and nevertheless amusing personage) who has a disturbingly adulterous relationship with his mother and is himself besotted with the new and beautiful Lette.

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There is no doubt that this show makes for an enjoyable evening. The acting, so deliberate and big as to be farcical, has the audience in stitches. Though many of the jokes rely on repetition, Maja Zade’s translation of the comedy works very well. Nevertheless, most of the humour is down to Weise’s direction, aided by movement director Jennifer Jackson.

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Nothing about this play is naturalistic – the acting is over-the-top, the production is near-expressionistic. However, all this is well-constructed and the overall effect is convincing. The scene changes, though not always smooth, are cleverly orchestrated – the last line from one scene becomes the first of another, with the actors deftly stepping out of each other’s way. The slightly raised stage is placed in the middle of the black box Park90 space, with two rows of seats on each side. It is less an intimate experience – the play is too unrelatable for that – than one in which the audience is very close to the action.

The actors occasionally address a line to the audience, or sit amongst them to watch the main action on stage. The stage itself is fascinating, used most effectively as a kind of multi-purpose table. As the main playing space is the floor around the stage, which is lower than the seats, the audience is mostly on eye-level with the actors, an unusually involving experience.  This show is obviously a team effort – the creative team seem to be as good an ensemble as the actors.

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One of the most striking things about this play is the use of fruit. Perhaps in allusion to the on-going health food fad, fruit stands in for Lette’s body during the fated operation. Aided by a microphone for amplification and some surgical instruments, the actors perform a well-choreographed sequence in which the slurping of water, the slicing of an apple, the squeezing of an orange and more make gruesomely realistic sound effects, sending the audience into uncomfortable fits of squirms and giggles.

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This play does not explore its themes – from ideas about acceptable appearance and self-portrayal to the career-driven nature of our society – as deeply or as subtly as it could have. This is largely due to its overtly satirical style. However, this is just as well – this production, rather than making you quietly chuckle, grabs you and shakes the laughs out of you. Eventually, Lette’s vanity spirals into a dark and refreshingly un-funny last scene, breaking the pattern of the rest of the show. At a crisp 90 minutes, it’s over before you’ve got the full measure of the story’s implications. Though it doesn’t plunge you into contemplation during the performance – you’re much too busy watching the spectacle – it gives you plenty to think about as you leave the theatre.

The Ugly One is playing at the Park Theatre’s PARK90 space until 24 June 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.

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