The Ugly Sisters

Soho Theatre

The Ugly Sisters
The Ugly Sisters

We heed fair warning from the fairy tales, learning from a young age never to stray from the path or trust a giant, nor a wolf. However, Fringe First-winners RashDash have devised a more contemporary take on the fairy tales.

The Ugly Sisters is an original preface to the well-known Cinderella story that, relying upon the power of preconceptions, explores themes of objectification and sexism in the media. It is not a play for everybody, but will appeal to a generation who grew up in the shadow of Ariel, Belle, Aurora and other such doe-eyed Disney stick-insects, or anyone bored of celebrating the sight of celebrity cellulite, arm-pit boob or (God forbid) an inch of fat.

Challenging the media's portrayal of women (desperately seeking the approval of Prince Charming, whoever he might be), The Ugly Sisters provokes thought, even if it does at times move slowly for such a short piece with so much to say.

Devised and performed by Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen and directed by Kyle Davies, this sinister cabaret puts the infamously villainous Ugly Sisters in a new light. No longer mindless perpetrators of cruelty and bullying, the girls are fraught victims of a loveless childhood and media misrepresentation.

For a while, it looks as though RashDash have just written a reversal of the Cinderella story, with poor old Cinders (named Arabella here) being an over-privileged and spoilt princess. However, the plot evolves into the story of how the so called 'ugly' sisters came to be 'ugly' (in a similar way to Wicked, which reveals the complex source of the Wicked Witch's 'wickedness').

Despite appearing to be terrified of the audience, the sisters tell their tale. Impoverished but content, they take pleasure in playing together in their burnt-out car until they go to live with their mother's boyfriend—Arabella's father. Forced to compete with Arabella for their mother's love and attention, the girls go on a Take Me Out-style reality TV show that lends them all the attention they could wish for and much, much more...

Sticking two fingers up to convention, the anarchic and experimental RashDash employ a Brechtian theatrically, bombarding the audience visually and aurally. Some devices are more successful than others: The songs are brilliant, legitimate originals by the onstage band—Not Now Bernard—but they are too long, halting the show's momentum.

Likewise, Greenland impressively records and layers a live track that represents her character's damaging and persistent internal monologue. Her talent is vast and admirable but the audience rapidly becomes impatient for plot development. There is something of an early Mighty Boosh, an eclectic randomness, that transmits well, but the metatheatrical prompting and 'awkward' silences are less funny, played with too heavy a hand and occurring too often.

While it may not be particularly original these days to draw attention to the shallow, excessive world of celebrity, or for a young adolescent to happily decapitate a Barbie, The Ugly Sisters really does have a unique edge, owing not only to its theatricality, but to the generous, energetic performances by Greenland and Goalen.

The highly-skilled girls work together so neatly that no one sister ever feels more important than the other and the most tragic part of the story is when they are momentarily turned against one another. The impact could have been greater still had the girls been afforded a larger character arc. They appear fragile and emotionally damaged as young children, prior to suffering at the hands of nurture, which undermines the potency of the play's message.

Greenland and Goalen are supported brilliantly throughout by the charismatic Not Now Bernard, made up of Benny Brooke, Jonas Aaron and Tom Penn, who also double as the story's secondary characters.

The Ugly Sisters is an enjoyable, quirky, harrowing piece of theatre. But it feels incomplete. Perhaps there is more to this story, yet to be told?

Reviewer: Emily Hardy

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