The Ugly One

Marius von Mayenburg, translated by Maja Zade
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs

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This is almost getting tedious. As we move into the autumn and Dominic Cooke's first European offering since he took over at the Royal Court, his hit rate remains at 100%.

Marius von Mayenburg's short but intense comedy about looks and identity is timely. By what must be a coincidence, it has opened during London Fashion Week, when the desirability of the Size 0 model is being hotly debated and beauty is under the microscope once again.

Ramin Gray has chosen to stage The Ugly One as if it were a rehearsal. Jeremy Herbert's design is almost a negation, using the same seating for the players as the audience and allowing the actors to drift in wearing plain clothes.

This should make differentiation difficult, as each actor has to play multiple characters with the same name. However, Gray and his on stage quartet ensure that this is rarely a problem.

The opening is naturalistic, as Michael Gould's Lette has a problem at work. Having invented a clever little plug and socket, his suave, self-regarding boss Scheffler, played by Mark Lockyer, prefers Karlmann (Frank McCusker) to do the all important sales presentation.

The reason that he reluctantly gives is that poor Lette is, to quote his wife Fanny, "unspeakably ugly". This is the stuff of ribald comedy and von Mayenburg makes the most of it, as Amanda Drew gently explains the problem to the man who had no idea that he was a world leader in being unattractive.

The writer develops the theme by sending his victim to another Scheffler, a genius of a plastic surgeon who shares the vanity of his patients. The outcome is that the Elephant Man becomes a Greek God.

The consequences are a mix of the predictable and the unexpected. The new Lette becomes a hit at work, his wife drools over him and soon enough, there is a queue of other beautiful women pursuing him. He also gets embroiled with a rich, elderly client (another Fanny) and her son (another Karlmann).

Just when it seems that the author has run through all of the permutations, Scheffler (the surgeon not the boss) starts to clone the Lette face with marvellous comic results in what briefly becomes a sex comedy. Von Mayenburg is too skilled a writer to leave it at that and begins to explore moral questions relating to identity and the value of a pretty face before a final, unexpectedly happy ending.

Marius von Mayenburg fits a vast amount into a play only 55 minutes long, getting laughs but also challenging his audience to consider the importance that today's society places on beauty. Does it only go skin deep or is there something beautiful and of much greater value far beneath the surface?

With Amanda Drew, best known for her work in Eastenders/RSC depending on taste, the pick of a good bunch, especially when instantly transforming herself between Fannys, the Court should have yet another well-deserved sell-out.

Howard Loxton reviewed the 2008 transfer to the Theatre Downstairs with a slightly different cast.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher