Written for CultureWars.org.uk
It’s remarkable the extent to which a change of space can alter the feel of a play. With the same director, the same designer, the same overall aesthetic and virtually the same cast, this Downstairs outing for The Ugly One retains much of what made the original so engaging and fun, but the differences are fascinating.
The play tells the story of Lette, a 'plug designer' who one day learns from his boss that he has always been considered horrifically ugly and that his colleague Karlmann is to undertake all the public-facing duties of his role. Disturbed, he asks his wife, Fanny, if it is true. He notices she only ever looks him in the eye and never at his face. He goes to Scheffler, a plastic surgeon, who agrees to build him a new face completely from scratch. The result, however, is spectacularly better than anyone could have imagined, opening a new world of possibilities for Lette.
The original production benefitted from the intimacy of the Theatre Upstairs coupled with Jeremy Herbert's perfectly designed appearance of an un-dressed theatre. Downstairs the artifice behind that conceit is slightly harder to achieve, with the actors needing to raise their voices, and with more of an atmosphere of playing out to the audience. The fluidity of the staging remains, though, with the excellent cast of Frank McCusker as all the Karlmanns, Amanda Drew as a clutch of Fannys and Simon Paisley Day replacing Mark Lockyer as the various Schefflers all swapping in and out of the various namesakes they play around the excellent Michael Gould as Lette. Day's Scheffler's are more posh British than Lockyer's slightly smugger, sleazier readings, but work just as effectively.
What is interesting is the effect that this slight increase in the “theatricality” of the surroundings has on the penultimate scene in which Lette seems to suffer a split personality and starts to argue with his reflection in the mirror. This works much better on the main stage, although it’s hard to tell whether this is down to a more subtle performance, the way in which the trajectory of the play has been finessed or simply the change of space.
Perhaps as a consequence, it is the ending that seems most transformed. While in the original, it seemed to offer a neat, if slightly cold bookending of the narrative, with a slightly pat ending that simply tied up the story rather than offering a final conclusion. On this outing the ending suggests a whole new theme about narcissism but also about the possibility of love between two such narcissists who see themselves in one another. Rather than appearing cynical, the conclusion this time is oddly touching.