GRIFFIN & MALTHOUSE THEATRE’S ‘UGLY MUGS’

‘Ugly Mugs’, written and starring Peta Brady, is a gritty engaging play that deals with more than a murdered sex worker and a teenage girl. It is a play that delves into the sexualisation of girls and of the men around them, whose power is to brutalise or they are paralysed by it. In many ways, this play is more about the men but it is their interaction with the women that define them. It also deals with the way women are targeted and blamed for the actions of men. It’s a touch of Adam and Eve in the most sinful of circumstances, if you will.

‘Ugly Mugs’ is streetwise and current and Brady’s sophisticated understanding of her characters, especially after years of working as an outreach worker as well as actor, has transferred beautifully into a play that understands the ugliness of desperation pushed to its limits, invisible to justice and fighting for any power within its grasp.

Director Marion Potts has allowed Brady and a solid ensemble of actors (Steve Le Marquand, Sara West and Harry Boland) to connect with this play, flowing effortlessly from the voices and interaction of the dead with those who seek to hear them and action as it unfolds, retrospectively. ‘Ugly Mugs’, originally a pamphlet written by sex workers and distributed amongst them, is the catalogue of violent punters encountered by them with the intention of trying to aid workers in recognising and avoiding the dangers in a world where protection from legal and crime institutions was barely present. It is a chance for the disempowered to rely on each other for support.

As doom and gloom as this sounds, there is a lovely weave of humour, especially by Brady’s character, to relieve the tension. Resilient and gutsy, Brady gives dimensions to this role so that we feel that this tragedy is not just of one woman but representative of the many who have gone before her and will continue to follow her and there is an inevitability to their plight that makes us realise how immune we’ve become to what happens outside of our sanitised and safe little worlds.

Michael Hankin’s stage design strips bear the niceties of the space and leaves us front and centre with the gurney but it is what he does with his costumes (even Brady’s hair was completely convincing) that create the reality of these people and world without overstating the premise at all.

If I have a criticism of the play, it is the poetry of dialogue for the son, played by Boland. The lyricism tends to work against the play and even against the character at times and I found myself having to work much harder to be engaged with his story. Or maybe the people who snuck into the theatre at that point distracted me but it left me estranged from this new subplot for a while.

The ending is also abrupt and I am left with questions in regards to Boland’s character. Why does he keep silent? Does he blame himself so that this punishment is his redemption? I’m not sure I completely believed the arc of his character like I believed the others. But a good performance by Boland and a terrific one from West kept these two in the frame and Le Marquand’s ability to be both vulnerable and horrifying, in different roles, gave us the light and shade we needed.

This is a very good play, made more so by the outstanding performance of Brady. It’s well worth watching so catch it if you can. 

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