Thursday, June 30, 2016

'Ugly Lovely' at the Old Red Lion, 29th June 2016

Nostalgia's a funny old thing. During teenage years I desperately looked forward to escaping the black hole of South Wales. The streets were piss-sodden and destitute: studded with boarded up shops, post-apocalyptic chic abandoned shopping precincts and sticky nightclubs where, upon entering, you're as likely to receive a fist in the face as an ink stamp on the hand. 

But watching a play like Ffion Jones' Ugly Lovely, I felt an unexpected twinge of homesickness. Set in Swansea, we spend 90 minutes in the company of Shell (Ffion Jones). She's just turning 26 and is beginning to suspect her life is at a dead end. Compounding this sudden sense of mortality is the constant presence of her Nan's cremated ashes. 

Despite having a child (offstage in the care of her overbearing mother) she's stuck in perpetual teenagerdom, perhaps best represented by her still wearing the same dress she got fingered in as a 16 year old. Something must change - so she makes tentative plans to ditch Swansea for the (slightly?) nicer climes of Liverpool. It's not paradise, but then what is?

A constant presence is Shell's long-time best friend Tasha (Sophie Hughes). She's also trapped in arrested development, but doesn't give a shit. Her crowning achievement in life appears to be vomiting on a sausage dog and, faced with a crap life that's all but guaranteed to end in misery, throws herself into teenage kicks with giddy abandon.

Ugly Lovely manages to be both simultaneously hilarious and brain-grindingly depressing. Shell and Tasha are great fun to be around, giving me vivid flashbacks of some of the girls I went to school with. Jones and Hughes do an outstanding job of playing drunk, ricocheting around the set like pinballs and cackling like banshees as they reminisce about their worst escapades. Not only are they an outstanding pair of physical performers, but the embody some essence of South Wales femininity; a 'don't-give-a-fuck' standoffishness that uneasily dovetails with an off-kilter vulnerability (perhaps best demonstrated by the way they teeter-totter-collapse on their heels).

On top of that, all the performers (but especially Ffion Jones) display millimeter precise comedy timing, cracking every atom of funniness out of everything they do. It's the mark of a great comedy when the actors not only have to pause to let the audience finish laughing, but are able to do without breaking the conceit of the scene. This happens over and over again, every tiny bit of observational humour hits; every big comedy set piece fires all cylinders.

But below the laughter is a palpable desperation. Shell in particular has the tragedy of knowing she's wasted her potential and squandered her opportunities; feebly grasping at straws to try and escape Swansea. Part of her tragedy is her connection to Tasha, who we soon deduce is in an exceptionally vulnerable situation. Throughout, Shell is trying to decide the point in which self-preservation trumps loyalty, and if she can live with abandoning her family, her friends and her past. The boundaries between life and death become a teeny bit blurred - eventually Liverpool as much like an afterlife as much as it is a destination.

All this culminates in an extraordinary pissed-up monologue by Shell in which she staggers around in a fit of egotism, giving voice to all the frustrations inside her. It's half On the Waterfront's "I coulda been a contender" and half fellow Swansea resident Dylan Thomas 'raging against the dying of the light'. This is one of the powerful moments in theatre where everyone seamlessly clicks into place. Socks were knocked off. Jaws were dropped. Heads spun. It was ace.

Ugly Lovely is excellent from tip to toe: giving London audiences a visceral and hilarious peek into a world little seen on stage. It's political without being preachy, subtly feminist and has a heart as big as a whale without indulging in sentimentality. I only hope it gets a production in South Wales so I can tell my friends there to see it as well.


Ugly Lovely is at the Old Red Lion until 16 July 2016. Tickets here.

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