It felt apt that the Welsh football team were dismantling European heavyweights Belgium in the Euro 2016 quarter-final match in the pub below the Old Red Lion Theatre. At the same time, Ffion Jones dissected Swansea life in her debut drams, Ugly Lovely. Jones’ title is derived from Dylan Thomas’ description of the place as an ‘ugly lovely town’. More recently, Ugly Lovely is reminiscent, albeit a diluted reflection, of Kevin Allen’s 1997 film, Twin Town, in which a character coins the seaside town a ‘pretty shitty city’. Jones’ Ugly Lovely seldom feels entirely comfortable with itself. Amidst the bleak lives of its heroines, Shell and Tash, Jones endeavours to evoke pathos and compassion- unfortunately, these feelings are rendered rather two-dimensionally and never feel completely authentic. Captivating at times, Ugly Lovely does not wrestle effectively with the tragicomic paradox its title suggests.
Shell and Tash are two ‘typical’ Swansea good-time girls. They have been drinking in the same clubs and on the same beaches and sleeping with an array of the same men since their schooldays. Ugly Lovely pursues the pair around the familiar cyclical journey from chip-shop to nightclub to kitchen/lounge. Shell is encumbered by Swansea and by recent events in her life- her boyfriend is constantly cheating on her, her son has been taken away and her grandmother has died. She dreams of leaving Swansea for Liverpool seeking out a new life. Tash, her school-friend, faces equally difficult tribulations from her tough family life. The two tackle adversity through binge drinking, and there is undisputedly space to explore the links between hedonism and tragedy in their lives. Unfortunately Jones’ drama fails to propel us towards this investigation.
We do grow to like Tash and Shell. Unfortunately, their exchanges are dumbed down, overly so- they exist as stereotypes. This leaves us wondering whether we are actually thrust into the role of voyeurs, gawping at the Welsh working-class. Jones endeavours to explore Shell’s emotional turmoil and isolation in scenes wherein she speaks alone to her grandmother’s ashes. Again, this presents another opportunity to delve deeper into the Ugly/Lovely complex of washed up youths in a washed up city. However, these scenes come across as slightly baggy- they do evoke a sense if compassion, but rarely for very long.
Ugly Lovely has bags of unfulfilled potential. Its best scene is served up when Shell takes home a man for a one-night stand. Their clumsy and awkward embraces demonstrate Jones’ eye for realist kitchen-sink drama- the scene is pretty uncomfortable to watch. Rarely are we presented with so guttural a sex-scene- it was well crafted, designed and performed. Although unremarkable, Ffion Jones debut drama infers that there may well be more to come from this young playwright- I’ll be keeping an eye out for her.
As we left the theatre, rhapsodic Welsh football fans reveled in their side’s surprising, but wholly deserved victory over European footballing heavyweights Belgium. A far stronger Ugly/Lovely Welsh tale; unfancied underdogs, after decades of disappointment, reaching the semi-finals of the European Championships. The two stories entwined; one of them more a more complexed tale than the other.
- By Ffion Jones
- Directed by Nikolai Ribinikov
- Cast includes Ffion Jones, Sophie Hughes, Oliver Morgan-Thomas
- Old Red Lion Theatre, London
- Until June 16th 2016
- Review by Sam Pengelly
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