First Night: The Ugly One, Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court, London

Extravagant ugliness that is transformed into a drop-dead gorgeous play
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The Independent Culture

I must say that I felt glad, as I was watching Marius von Mayenburg's brilliantly clever and funny new play, that I am not one of those critics who have a picture by-line. One might be exposed to ironic titters with one's face sitting atop a review of a drama like 'The Ugly One' which centres on a research scientist and inventor called Lette (Michael Gould) who is so extravagantly ugly that even his wife can only look him in the eye and not in the full face.

It was never clear to me how he had managed to go through life to early middle age without registering the full extent of his hideousness. But it's eventually brought home to him when the company for whom he has developed a new kind of electrical plug decide to send someone else to a business convention to talk about it, since, with his looks, Lette would be a commercial liability. So he turns to a plastic surgeon who refashions his visage and, by a stroke of luck, leaves him with a uniquely drop-dead gorgeous status. Women, including a 73-year-old head of a company who has herself been nicked and tucked to a semblance of youth, queue for his favours. Then, there is a dramatic and tragi-comic twist that multiplies the problem of being him and gives a whole new meaning to the idea of having features to die for.

Von Mayenberg's play reacts with a devilishly cunning flair and originality to a world in which more and more people are aspiring to generic templates of beauty. Switch on an American news channel and virtually all anchor-women are Barbies. Even someone as supremely gifted and individual as Rufus Wainwright was heard to say in a recent interview that he regretted not looking like a porn star and he was only being partly ironic from the sound of it.

The play reminded me at times of Caryl Churchill's supremely great 'A Number', not just in its artful consideration of questions of identity in an age of replication (here through cosmetic surgery rather than cloning– Lette becomes the face that launches a thousand face-lifts), but through the daring of its technique.

Puckishly suiting the subject, actors pose as look-alikes in the space of a line of dialogue or flit to-and-fro between identities in a twinkling. Running at 55 minutes, the play is splendidly served by the talented cast (Amanda Drew, Michael Gould, Mark Lockyer and Frank McCusker), a translation by Maja Zade that often has the bounce and snap of music-hall cross-talk and a very canny production by Ramin Gray that gives the piece a non-realistic rehearsal room setting that makes it feel like a thought-experiment that has gone scarily wrong. An exhilarating start to the Royal Court's International Season.

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