AdlFringe Review: One for the Ugly Girls

by Jane

This review contains significant spoilers. 

Playwright Tahli Corin is one on a long list of Adelaide playwrights moved interstate. It is all too rare to see plays by these writers in Adelaide: second-hand reports come in from Sydney, a few will travel to see it and come back, but the reasons they leave are certainly evident. No less than three ex-South Australian playwrights have works debuting at Griffin Theatre in Sydney this year, including Corin, and it is wonderful to see ONFG giving One for the Ugly Girls its Adelaide premiere, directed here by Adriana Bonaccurso.

Alistair (Syd Brisbane) is an artist whose work hangs in the National Gallery. Suffering from a block in his work resulting from his wife’s death, he hires life model Jade (Lori Bell) for inspiration. When Jade arrives, though, she doesn’t match the picture of what he had in his head – or of the image that was posted on the website. After an initial conflict, the two settle into an antagonistic relationship: each pushing each other’s comfort and buttons, until Jade manages to show Alistair a way back into his art.

The audience soon learn that this Jade isn’t the model from the website at all, and eventually with the appearance of the real Jade (Hannah Norris), the first woman is revealed to be Claire, her step-sister. Out with the old and in with the new, as Alistair replaces the raw and contentious Claire with the shiny veneer of Jade.

There is a slight clumsiness to this turning point in the production which neither Corin nor Bonaccurso have managed to resolve. As an audience, we have been given no hints as to how much Alistair himself knew about the manipulation, nor why he was so happy to go along with it for so long. Was it a simple case of loneliness, of the simple energy that is generated their fights? But then why is he so fickle as to replace one with the other so quickly?

One could suppose he is so blinded by beauty nothing else matters, but this in itself makes Alistair a throughly unlikable person. At the start of the play, he perceives his wife as perfect, infallible. Through the first Jade, he starts to admit to the flaws that make her complete and a person, and it’s only through starting to understand this that he can start to again see the woman he wants to paint. This recession into a search for an unobtainable perfection paints an ugliness on Alistair, and brings into question his entire relationship with Claire, with his wife, and his art, and leaves us with a man I wouldn’t be keen to know.

Corin’s characters are constantly playing charades: Alistair, here, perhaps with himself as much with anyone else; Claire pretending to be a model; Jade with her breathy affected voice, basing a career on assuming the character of sex symbol. While the three continue to play games with each other, the production really sings when these pretensions are dropped in conflict between Jade and Claire. They are adults, but we watch them descend into petty squabbling and then a full out brawl, Bonaccurso filling her playing space with energy as the characters, for once, fully embrace their true selves and their true emotions.

There is a sort of breath that we take, too, as audience members, as we realise the full extent of the charade of Norris’ Jade and just how much she plays games. Norris seems to revel in Jade’s asinine tribute to a sexuality defined by the fake, but it is a relief to watch her fall back into an earthier character – and then watch as Norris flickers between the two.

Claire, too, is built upon a paradox, yet she is less self-aware and manipulating than Jade: she presents herself as confident in her ideals and in her body, yet she struggles with the concepts of beauty – who has it, who perceives it – and Bell deftly plays this line between uncomfortable and assured. Brisbane sits less settled into the world of Alistair, his lines delivered with an uncomfortable punchiness leaves Alistair feeling out of step with the world of the play.

Manda Webber’s design integrates itself into Tuxedo Cat, an abandoned and gutted department store, embracing the concrete floors, the walls with missing bricks and uneven plastering, the real windows of the space. This space is comfortable and familiar for us to view as an artist’s space: an undone-ness or rawness we think of when we think of makeshift studios; paint buckets hidden under window sills, piles of old drawings stored under the vanity. Half forgotten but not yet lost.

Something about the work still sits slightly uneasy with me. Is it the fact that I truly don’t particularly like any of the characters – and I wonder if Corin wants me to feel sympathy for Claire? While she certainly has moments where she provides insight, or provokes sympathy, she also manipulates her way into a person’s home and life where she wasn’t invited. And yet the work and these characters still hold such an energy. Leaving us with the slightly unresolved futures of these people means we leave the theatre with a true sense of a future, of a life extending beyond the curtain call.

ONFG presents One For The Ugly Girls by Tahli Corin. Directed by Adriana Bonaccurso, designed by Manda Webber, lighting design by Sam Hopkins, sound design and stage management by Stephen Moylan. With Lori Bell, Syd Brisbane and Hannah Norris. At Tuxedo Cat for the Adelaide Fringe, until February 26. More information and tickets.