It’s a brave move to name a play Ugly, especially one concerned with women’s perception of their appearance in the image-obsessed modern world. But then the team behind this production, part of this year’s Camden Fringe, are undoubtedly brave as it is apparent from the outset that the intention was to make an impact and deliver an important message.
Written by newcomer Perdita Stott, Ugly gets its point across not so much by narrative but via a montage of vignettes giving an insight into the minds of several different but instantly recognisable types of women. If these anecdotes are not taken from real accounts, they certainly seemed like they did. Director Danae Cambrook has the challenge of bringing these diverse characters and scenarios to life with just three actors. This she does with an inventiveness and confidence which belies her relative inexperience. She is certainly helped in this endeavour by strong performances from Eve Atkinson, Karen Bengo and Orla Sanderson, all of whom are allowed to play to their strengths both representing different characters and providing captivating support when required.
Atkinson demonstrates an impressive diversity of accents and facial expressions in her characterisations. Bengo delivers some striking displays of physicality, which are as much a credit to her affinity with movement and dance as they are to the choreographer. Sanderson initially appears to have less stage presence than the other two but later it is apparent that her ability to engage the audience is more subtle. She and Bengo also perform a bewitching depiction of the demons which inhabit Atkinson’s head which is a visually arresting triumph of mime, choreography and costume. Atkinson and Bengo’s portrayal of Sanderson’s dreams of Disney princesses and bluebirds is similarly simple but effective.
The aim behind Ugly might have been to serve as a valuable lesson to the ‘selfie’-obsessed generation to be comfortable in their own skin, but that lesson seemed to lose some of its impact by being somewhat overstated and not really being sure where to finish. The knowing and cynical cheerleaders’ scenario might have made a more powerful conclusion and the message tailed off somewhat after that drawing to a rather anti-climactic ending with the audience left unsure whether it was time to applaud.
The strength in Ugly lies not so much in the value of the message it is aiming to convey but in the expressive individual acting performances and the theatrical creativity of the production. It also ably demonstrates that it is possible to get a point across with a simple set and limited resources. The all-female identifying team behind Ugly is brave to try and address such a contentious, emotionally fraught issue on the stage. The evidence of their interpretative ability should give them the confidence to be even braver and let their theatrical talents speak for themselves.
Ugly continues at the Hen and Chickens Theatre Bar on 10th and 11th August 2019.