The Ugly One, Royal Court Upstairs, London

The good, the bad and the ugly: a social satire
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The Independent Culture

Lette has assumed, until now, that he looks okay. However, to everyone else in Marius von Mayenburg's darkly comic teaser about identity, plastic surgery and marketing, he is The Ugly One.

The Royal Court's International Playwrights season gets off to a strong start with this satiric-going-on-surreal chamber piece for four actors.

Michael Gould's Lette (actually looking quite ordinary) is a happy employee in an electronics firm until he is told by his boss – Mark Lockyer's commercially hardnosed Scheffler – that he's no eye-candy so can't present his own invention (a high-voltage connector plug) at a business convention. His wife, Fanny (Amanda Drew), then breezily confirms that, although a lovely person, he is unspeakably hideous.

After having his face refashioned from scratch by a surgeon (Lockyer's second role), Lette emerges looking like a million dollars (or so we glean, while Gould's face remains unchanged). Jaws drop in astonishment and Lette becomes a hot property at work and with the ladies. However, this goes to his head and corrodes any firm sense of identity – especially as the surgeon starts nightmarishly mass-producing lucrative Lette clones.

The director, Ramin Gray, has created a production which is more fascinating for not being tarted up. This is bare-bones theatre, resembling a rehearsal with no costumes or props – except for one blue plastic bag which is slipped over post-op heads as a pretend bandage. The acting is excellent, deadpan and downplayed, the effect of which is, at once, dryly humorous and unnervingly frosty. Gray's cast simply deliver their lines sitting around on benches. Yet their role-changing becomes mind-bending as the characters proliferate and keep sharing names.

For example, in the blink of an eye, Drew can be Lette's wife then his mistress – another Fanny who, we are told, is 73 but has also been insanely enhanced under the scalpel. Meanwhile, Frank McCusker doubles as Lette's professional rival, Karlmann, and the mistress's bisexual son – also called Karlmann – who becomes voyeuristically enamoured of Lette. Both Karlmanns proceed to acquire his face and he ultimately falls in love with one of them, as if narcissistically transfixed by his own mirror image.

Von Mayenburg's German sense of humour perhaps loses something in translation. His monologues, sending up dull sales pitches, are a drag. The closing plot twists are slightly strained too. Nonetheless, this piece is being cleverly paired with Rhinoceros, Eugene Ionesco's play where people morph into monstrous pachyderms (currently previewing in the Theatre Downstairs). The Ugly One also echoes Ovid's Pygmalion, Frankenstein, Shakespeare's twin-blurring Twelfth Night and other classic stories – all with a sharp contemporary twist.

The comedy becomes stealthily disturbing, touching on raw, instinctive worries and philosophical questions about our current society's shallow values and its foolish ditching of plain, honest realities in favour of manufactured fantasies.

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