New faces: Will Kelly with the cast of The Ugly One
New faces: Will Kelly with the cast of The Ugly One. Pic: Toby Farrow

The Ugly One. Alma Tavern Theatre, Bristol.

“I love me” is the dying refrain in Marius Von Mayenburg’s tragic comedy The Ugly One given an epidermis-full of energy by director Sarah Bradley in this Directors’ Cuts season by the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School (BOVTS) students.

Particularly impressive was the way the black box of a space at the Alma Tavern was transformed by Natasha Mortimer into a clinical office utility zone with its mobile filing cabinets, hot desks, brief cases and domestic kitchen. Two further strengths of the show were the choreographed balletic movement and freezes along with the improvised sound effects from the cast. These were quickly applauded by the sell-out audience in the studio theatre above the Clifton pub as were the comic timing of lines between the cast of four.

Will Kelly was excellent value as the ugly-transformed-to-handsome Lette, while Josh Finan flipped effortlessly from priggish boss to wide-boy surgeon, and Jac Hayliss as Karlmann convinced as spoilt son, Gaylord fop and overlooked worker. Lily Donovan as Fanny conquered decades in slipping from aged plastic surgeon’s delight in mummy to hard-done-by Fanny, wife of Lette in an energetic performance that included Olympic qualifying snogging with the rest of the cast. Indeed, oral sex, sex in all its forms and good old fashioned snogging was one of the theatrical devices used by Sarah Bradley to add a certain frisson to the proceedings. Sex and theatre often seem to work.

Relationships: will Lette's new face change him asks his wife Fanny
Relationships: will Lette’s new face change him asks his wife Fanny. Pic: Toby Farrow

For this was a play about how “a little bit of work” can alter our looks – for better or for worse – in that better brings with it new problems. It can transform us from nearly rans to winners with beautiful faces – until everyone copies you.

“I love you for what you are,” says Fanny to Lette when he ponders the idea of plastic surgery after being told he’s too ugly to “sell, sell, sell.” He confronts his wife in a heart to heart after he discovers everyone thinks he is ugly. To paraphrase she says: “You have a lovely voice and are a beautiful person.” After the wonderfully comic and theatrical operation that was neatly choreographed with flashing lights, hair dryers and pretend syringes in a masterpiece of physical theatre Lette goes from ugly to beautiful and the world falls at his feet. And there is the problem: you can be too good-looking for your own good.

It was an enjoyable and at times laugh-out-loud-production with only the over-long suicide monologue in Von Mayenburg’s script near the end that took a little steam out of the full-on production.

There was much to admire including the sound (Jessica Edkins) and the actor’s use of a mini electronic piano, microphone and techno-beat music from Jac Baylis that effortlessly supported the show and had the audience tapping their feet. Coupled with Layla Lagab’s lighting that made use of flashing lights, spotlights and moody colour washes this was a production of the highest standards given the tiny space.

The graphic used to promote the show
The graphic used to promote the show

Sharp timing, pace and clearly defined changes of character were expected and delivered by the cast, with some well-judged moments of high comedy that can be lost without a deft touch. Lily Donovan’s stretched frozen faced sex-mad mum was a delightful horror while Josh Finan’s posh boss was welcome comfort-comedy fun. Comedy is definitely a gift the cast possess. Hold on to it – it could be a future pay cheque.

Von Mayenburg’s tilt at celebrity culture, business ethics, the shallowness of visual attraction and the plastic surgery industry in general also probed personal relationships and the question of who we are. “Is that really me in the mirror?” asks Lette, “or is it someone else?” Make-up, hair and clothing can change us superficially, but in the end we are still that person our friends and family recognise – but if we are so transformed into an Adonis or goddess – what happens then?

Funny yes, creative yes, full of energy and several moments of near-perfect theatrical comedy are part of an entertaining 70 minutes of neatly crafted theatre. And as a showcase for the students of BOVTS this was pretty polished stuff. Credit to the director and to the ridiculously good-looking Will Kelly for his high octane performance and to his trio of actors who made the Ugly One handsome.

Harry Mottram Four stars

The play continues to April 30.

Reviewed April 26, 2016

For more details of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School visit