Shell is unemployed, her boyfriend has cheated on her, her son’s been taken away and she’s started talking to her grandmother’s ashes. Ugly Lovely follows her trials and tribulations as she staggers from boozer to chip shop to cup after cup of cold tea, trying to make sense of the town that has swallowed up her hopes and dreams and spat them out time and time again.
There is a greasy, despondent sense of neglect that courses through every scene of Ugly Lovely. From its dressing gown-swathed characters licking cocaine off filthy work surfaces to its dingy, broken-down set and garish, pulsing lights, we get the sense that the play has about as much respect for Swansea as for a dry-heaving ladette, rolling in her own vomit at 7AM on a Monday morning. Writer and star Ffion Jones portrays the town and its people as little more than broken bits washed up on the city’s shore, and our heroines, Shell and Tash, are no exceptions.
Shell drowns in self-pity when her young son is taken away, and in the next breath has abandoned him for a new life of possibility in Liverpool. Tash coyly admits to contemplating suicide, and moments later elates in fucking an old tramp in an alleyway. While a more delicate production might suggest that these girls are burying their deep-seated sorrows in drink, here it feels as though these characters aren’t smart enough to realise why they’re sad. Nikolai Ribnikov’s production revels in the kind of bawdy humour that invites us to laugh at rather than with, and playing Shell and Tash’s ignorance and stupidity for laughs makes the play’s demand for empathy ring hollow in the final scenes.
Only in the quiet moments where Tash speaks to her grandmother’s ashes to we get any sense of her humanity, and these scenes are too ill-disciplined to pack any real punch. There is a feeling of real sadness here, inextricably linked to a town which is rather brutally rendered on stage. But it’s the kind of aimless, disconnected sadness that makes you want to shake someone and tell them to get their arse in gear. Jones’ Shell is stuck, both in the text and in performance, unable to connect even with the audience who have paid to see her wallow in her woes.
Ugly Lovely’s title suggests an attempt to dramatise a place as a complicated jumble of contradiction: steeped in nostalgia, limited in possibility, blunt and dark and bright and beautiful all at the same time. Instead, in this production we get something in between. Jones’ Swansea may seem dank, unloved and eternally grey, but her characters have the power to see it otherwise. If only they had the opportunity to look.
Ugly Lovely is on until 16th July 2016. Click here for more information.