The Royal Court’s Upstairs/Downstairs season, reviving 2007 hits from the 80-seat studio in the theatre’s main house, launches with this return of Marius von Mayenberg’s comic 60-minute oddity.

Michael Gould is once again Lette, “the ugly one” of the title, who lives in blissful ignorance about his catastrophically ugly face until he’s excluded from a key business trip because of it. With his wife’s encouragement, he goes under the knife and, unexpectedly, attains a beauty that transforms not only his own personality but his relationships with all around him – and soon heralds a confusing army of surgically enhanced imitators.

In a welter of questions raised about identity, sexuality, narcissism and the nature of beauty, not to mention theatre, Amanda Drew and Frank McCusker also reprise a string of roles including Lette’s wife, a septuagenarian sexpot, a jealous assistant and a bisexual admirer, all bearing the same names, Fanny (for the female characters) and Karlmann (for the male). A cool-as-a-cucumber Simon Paisley Day takes over from Mark Lockyer as Scheffler who is, variously, Lette’s boss and/or his sadistic surgeon.

The shifts – sometimes mid-sentence - are not as difficult to follow on stage as they are to describe on the page in Ramin Gray’s rehearsal room-style production, presented without costume or effects on an undressed stage (with the prompter visible stage left, and behind-the-scenes bowels exposed) and the house lights raised throughout.

With echoes of Caryl Churchill’s cloning play A Number, seen on this same stage six years ago, The Ugly One is a curious, and curiously compelling, way to spend an hour in the theatre – and, for my companion and me, prompted a couple more hours of discussion in the bar afterwards.


NOTE: The following TWO-STAR review dates from September 2007 and this production’s original run in the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.

Marius von Mayenburg is a German version of Mark Ravenhill without the metaphor. The Ugly One, his diagrammatic comedy of facelifts and identity crises when a high voltage connector inventor – yes, I’ll say that again, it’s so interesting: a high voltage connector inventor – submits to the knife in order to be a plausible salesman at an upcoming conference, is both funny and sad.

Well, it’s fairly funny – with a great big dip in the middle of a mere sixty-minute running time – and sad, but not always in a good way. Ramin Gray’s production of a translation from the German by Maja Zade is not a patch on Ravenhill’s underrated political parable of physical desecration, The Cut, but it does skirt round issues of beauty and surgical tucks in a neat and punchy fashion.

Lette, “the ugly one”, is the inventor whose wife Fanny develops a relationship with his assistant and morphs into that chap’s own 73-year-old son-fixated mother. When I say that Gray’s production makes all this clear as crystal – while also introducing another Fanny as a surgical nurse; all the Fannies are played by the wonderfully lubricious Amanda Drew – then you have the measure and limit of my admiration.

I don’t think the show amounts to all that much. The idea that who you are is what you look like is the jumping off point. The actors convene wearing trainers and jeans. The stage manager sits glumly by her desk. There’s a lot of unexplained scaffolding. This is “visible” theatre. It’s not going to be Hello, Dolly!

On the other hand, it does have the energy of the brilliant actor Mark Lockyer as both Lette’s boss and surgeon. And the mimetic medical interludes of nose-snapping and cheek-bending are wonderfully disturbing, with cracks and tweaks to send you happily back to the tragedy of your own appearance. In the men’s loo afterwards, everyone was checking their faces for a change.

Michael Gould as Lette barters his soul for better looks and pays the price of losing his beloved to his own critically acidic assistant (Frank McCusker) – who looks like him and is schtupping his wife anyway. “How am I supposed to orientate myself emotionally?” cries Fanny. Search me. But this pleasant little play does at least cosy up to the culture of narcissism without laying any of its practitioners all that bare.

- Michael Coveney