At first glance, The Ugly One looks somewhat clinical. Becky Minto’s set is a mixture of white and grey blocks, the only colour coming from small fruit bowls placed on plinths on either side of the stage. There’s a conveyor belt to the rear, suggesting industry but lacking the oily dirt of machinery. When the cast appears, one by one, bringing on clear plastic seats, they’re uniformly dressed in suits—albeit pastel-coloured suits.
Yet the tone of the next 75 minutes is clear from how the cast walk on, posturing and eyeing up the audience, daring us to laugh. And, we do; what follows is laugh-out-loud funny, with an ensemble skilled in teasing the most from their roles through body posture, facial expressions or dialogue. The situation is ridiculous, and is abstractly presented; yet we quickly accept Lette as a man who’s boss considers him too ugly to sell his invention (a new type of high voltage connector), a man who’s only married because his wife never looks him full in the face.
Martin McCormick is up to the job of making us care about Lette, whose (fruitily portrayed) plastic surgery procedure changes him from being the ugliest man in the world to the most handsome… someone whose features are so entrancing that he can arouse anyone while going through the technical specifications of his connector. That he achieves this switch with pretty much nothing more than some added sparkly lipstick is remarkable, although McCormick’s undoubtedly supported by the assured comedic skills of Michael Dylan, who does double duty as Lette’s jealous assistant Karlmann and a rich old lady’s “awkward”, sex-obsessed son.
Sally Reid plays both Lette’s apologetic wife and the aforementioned rich old lady with just the right level of impact, on occasions switching between the two at the drop of a feather bower. Helen Katamba, meantime, shifts effortlessly between stereotyped northern boss and the surgeon whose new technique becomes a global success. All the performances are, necessarily, broadly done: there’s not much subtlety to be found in lines such as “The fact is that you’re unspeakably ugly.” But, under Debbie Hannan’s excellent direction, the story is sharply told, and comes with all the speed you expect from the best Farces.
Importantly, of course, this isn’t just about the laughs; playwright Marius von Mayenburg is taking on significant topics ranging from a loss of personal identity, the pitfalls of success and the cult of celebrity, and it’s clear that Maja Zade has done a great job translating the original into English. When an emotionally disintegrating Lette is on the brink of taking his own life, we’re emotionally committed to his situation. Just as we should be.