Adelaide Fringe 2013
A model gets more than she bargained for when she enters the home of an artist obsessed with the memory of his dead wife. What follows is a tale of deceit, infatuation, and the blurred lines between the beautiful and the ugly, and the imaginary and the reality.
After an uneasy introduction, Jade agrees to be the model for Alistair, a renowned portrait artist. Slowly but surely they begin to open up to one another, and Alistair tells Jade all about his recently deceased wife, Vicky. After claiming to not remember one bad thing about her, Jade forces Alistair to admit that Vicky was a person with flaws, for Jade believes that it is our imperfections which make us real, rather than a fantasy.
However, ‘Jade’ herself may not be all that Alistair imagines her to be. She deletes messages from his answering machine, and looks nothing like the photographs that Alistair had seen of her previously. And when another woman claiming to be Jade shows up on Alistair’s doorstep, things take a decidedly darker turn…
One for The Ugly Girls is a surprising play. In the beginning it seemed like it was going to be a screwball comedy, with Alistair and ‘Jade’ trading quips and insults at lightning speed. The tone shifts when Jade’s lies are found out, and then our perceptions of the characters’ motivations change, also.
I also appreciated that it was not afraid to go tackle some heavier themes, related to superficiality and grief, and alcoholism and mental illness were hinted at with the character of Alistair. It also eschewed a cuddly ‘everything worked out fine’ narrative in favour of a nastier if more realistic ending.
Although the cast are all very capable, and working with first class material by Tahli Corin, a playwright on the rise, the stand out for me would have to be Lori Bell. It’s always a huge ask for an actor to take on the ‘ugly’ role, but Bell’s performance went beyond just baring her body. Her character was the heart of the story, the rough yet kind muse who at first seems to be playing a game of cat and mouse, and then is revealed to be simply reaching out to a lonely soul she sees as a sort of kindred spirit. Chatty and brash lady protagonists are nothing new in romantic dramas, yet in the hands of Bell and Corin, ‘Jade’ manages to avoid the hoary old ‘duckling into swan’ cliche, and instead becomes the only character not trapped into a fictional daydream by the final act.
Syd Brisbane as Alistair and Hannah Norris as the real Jade also deliver great performances. Brisbane’s Alistair starts off as a gruff yet sympathetic man, but as the play progresses, he reveals his pettiness, his chauvinism, and in the final act, it’s not clear whether he’s actually a psychotic or not. The real Jade wasn’t a psychotic, she was just a New Age-wannabe idiot, but kudos should really go to Norris, who looked like she was having a ball playing a character so repulsive. Her droning Lana Del Rey-ish voice drove me around the bend.
The set was artfully arranged, the lights hit their cue, and every prop had a purpose, especially the all-important answering machine. The only problem was that we were upstairs, and sometimes it was hard to hear the actors because of the loud rock music coming from the bar area. I understand that the Tuxedo Cat is a relatively new Fringe venue, and I generally like it, but that was a really obvious problem that needs to be looked at ASAP.
One for the Ugly Girls will make you laugh, make you think, and at times, make you recoil in discomfort. But it should be admired for its daring and originality, and Corin and Bell take it to that next level.