“Ugly does not shy away from a plethora of difficult topics and this is to be admired”
Ugly, written by Perdita Stott and directed by Danae Cambrook, explores the notion of beauty and ugliness – from being ‘conventionally attractive’ to the ugly words that children throw at each other on the playground. The play is made up of several vignettes of the lives and experiences of different people. They are primarily women but there is also some brief consideration of societal pressures on feminine and homosexual men. The audience follows these people through their everyday lives – working out at the gym, attending social events, navigating school life etc. – in an effort to understand the dangerous fostering of self-loathing that seems almost inevitable in our image-obsessed society.
Five women make up the cast of Ugly: Eve Atkinson, Shereener Browne, Samantha Bingley, Hannah Marie Davis and Orla Sanders. The quintet works well together, and they all move effortlessly between their different characters. Five actors are more than enough for this production and at times the stage did feel quite crowded.
Shereener and Bingley are particularly strong, and the latter has some wonderfully emotive scenes as a little girl desperately trying to gain the approval of her overbearing mother. Bingley also lends her voice to some impressive solos which play on the idea of the perfect Disney princess.
However, some more variety in the cast would be appreciated such as a ‘masculine’ woman, a lesbian or another person of colour. As a black woman, Shereener explores the effect that the lack of representation in the media can have on a young child. These scenes were some of the play’s strongest and it would have been an interesting to have perhaps had some scenes where an Asian woman considers the frequent fetishisation of her race and its relation to feeling desirable.
The performance starts off a bit slow, but the cast seem to find their feet by the second half. A nice thread throughout the play is the five women stating how old they were when they first thought they were ugly. The ages are tragically low, ranging from ranges from six to ten. It is nice that a more obviously personal element is included in the production as it is not always clear what other monologues are based on reality.
There are also several moments throughout the performance where the production seems to be drawing to a close which makes its continuation slightly jarring. The finality in which some conclusions and advice are delivered cause some disjointedness. Ugly is highly ambitious in its subject matter but it is too much for its hour running time.
The set consists of a few chairs and low tables peppered with fashion magazines and candles. There is not much need for anything more elaborate than this. Props are used well especially a set of aprons which double as both towels to wipe away sweat after a workout and a feature in a repeated dance sequence that separates scenes. There is some strong choreography (Nadine Chui) elsewhere in the performance, most notably, a ballet dance by Davis.
Ugly does not shy away from a plethora of difficult topics and this is to be admired. However, some more exploration of lesser considered issues and a homing in on key messages would go a long way in elevating this production.
“It shines at times, but is crying out for editorial cuts”
In my opinion, The Simpsons is arguably the most timeless and successful cartoon ever to grace television. Why? Because it appeals both to kids and adults alike, without compromise for either audience. In this sense, writer and director Francesca De Sica’s all-female, pop-up theatre retelling of the Sherlock Holmes short story appears to strive for the same effect, with a play that has lots of wackiness and slapstick gags for kids, but also a detailed plot and the odd joke only adults will get.
The text is pretty faithful to the original story – the language feels more or less the same although there is lots of ad-libbing. We follow Holmes (Elizabeth Appleby) and Watson (Francesca De Sica) as they are tasked with retrieving a sensitive photograph from actress Irene Adler (Princess Donnough) and returning it to their client, The King of Bohemia (Laura-Jean Richardson). Side characters are multi-roled by the five-piece cast – Katharine Blackshaw (as Mrs Hudson and other roles) gives the most memorable performance by far, making each of her characters stand out but through subtlety rather than playing for laughs as some of the other actors do.
The atmosphere of A Scandal In Bohemia is friendly and upbeat from the moment we walk in – each guest is offered a drink and a snack whilst the characters natter away, interacting fabulously with everyone. At the end, a few audience members are brought onstage and Sherlock tries to guess their occupation, which goes down extremely well with any kids watching. It’s a show that feels refreshingly collaborative. The world of the play also very much comes alive through the show’s design – despite having a pop-up set it is detailed and utilises the whole space, whilst the costumes are appropriate for the period yet eye-catching and colourful. Hand and shadow puppets are both involved also, albeit briefly – the shadow puppets are particularly charming and perhaps could be made more of.
This all takes over from the actual story, which seems like an afterthought. Many of the scenes feel too long and wordy, which is enough to make adults switch off, let alone kids. For those who are trying to follow what’s going on, this isn’t helped by the ceaseless ad-libbing or the random, vague movements that for some reason De Sica has included alongside important plot points. Unfortunately, A Scandal In Bohemia also seems to miss the mark in its quest to replicate ‘The Simpsons Complex’ and create something which appeals to audiences of all ages. The jokes are a little too childish and the acting a little too hammy for an adult audience, and the gags that clearly are there for adults are somewhat shoehorned in – the worst offender being a bit with Holmes and Watson openly snorting cocaine. Is that really something we want to show an audience of schoolchildren? The attempts to tell the story in a ‘fun’ way sometimes fall short also, for example the crime scene analysis/boxing match which somehow manages to be both confusing and unengaging, and the Punch & Judy show which seeks to fight the patriarchy, but seems completely out of place here.
It’s a shame because as a kids’ show, A Scandal in Bohemia has potential to be hugely entertaining if the text were simplified and the disjointed ‘jokes for the parents’ were got rid of. It shines at times, but is crying out for editorial cuts.