The Ugly One @ Royal Court, London

cast list
Amanda Drew
Michael Gould
Mark Lockyer
Frank McCusker

directed by
Ramin Gray
Marius von Mayenburg’s new play, which opens the Royal Court’s new season of International writing, contains more in its 55 minute running time than others manage in double that length.

It’s a study in the strengths of keeping things concise and the staging is similarly taut. There is no set as such, instead the stage has been left to resemble a bare rehearsal space, a couple of benches, an office chair. A ladder and a rail of clothes have been left, seemingly randomly, in the background and the floor is marked and grubby. The actors wear what I presume are their own clothes and can be seen chatting in a corner for some minutes before the play starts.

This is all highly appropriate to a play about surfaces and images about the power the visual exerts on our lives. It concerns Lette, a designer of plugs, who is prevented from going to a conference by his boss because his face doesn’t fit, he is too ugly, and because “you can’t sell anything with that face.” This is news to Lette, he’d never considered himself ugly before, but, after his wife confirms that his face is “disastrous” (she had simply declined to look at him properly over the years), he decides to get the problem rectified surgically.

He finds a surgeon who agrees to build him a whole new face and Lette happily goes along with this, but once he has been un-uglified he finds that his whole life changes. Women suddenly find him irresistible (including one septuagenarian business woman who is no stranger to the surgeon’s knife herself, having had nearly everything stretched and tightened) and people start wanting to look like him, to covet his face itself.

Over its short running time, the play deftly plays with notions of identity, attraction and perception. Michael Gould successfully conveys the dramatic changes in Lette’s personality without overplaying things (there are of course no make up effects to denote before and after surgery in this stripped-down production) and the three remaining actors, Mark Lockyer, Frank McCusker and Amanda Drew, juggle the remaining characters between them. Though the characters they play share the same names, their performances ensure there is no room for confusion as they whip between scenes; a turn of the head and a tilt of the mouth is all that’s needed to convey a switch in scene/character.

All the performances have a kind of cranked up intensity, as befits this fast-paced black satire, but Mark Lockyer (recently seen as the seedy lawyer in the Young Vic’s Vernon God Little, in particular, has a smooth, supercilious delivery that really compliments the tone of the writing.

As satire, the play is sometimes a little over-egged for my liking but, as an exercise in how much can be achieved with so little – and indeed how little you need to feed an audience for them to follow you – this was an exciting and rather revelatory piece of theatre.

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