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Ugly Lovely review at the Old Red Lion, London – ‘affectionate but uncomfortable’

Ffion Jones and Sophie Hughes in Ugly Lovely at the Old Red Lion, London. Photo: Velvet Trumpet
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The title of Ffion Jones’ debut play about life in Swansea comes from Dylan Thomas: “this ugly, lovely town… crawling, sprawling by the side of a long and splendid curving shore.” In Twin Town, the British film that launched Rhys Ifans’ career, Dougray Scott’s cop dubbed it a “pretty shitty city.” Ugly Lovely’s treatment of the place sits somewhere in between the two – it never quite captures the poetry of one nor the filthily satisfying humour of the other.

Tash and Shell are two mad-for-it, good-time south Walian girls – the kind we recognise from Gavin and Stacey, and perhaps, more recently, from Iphigenia in Splott. They are booze-fuelled, vomit-flecked and very, very loud. But, for Shell at least, this lifestyle, and Swansea itself, no longer holds much appeal.

There’s affection for the characters here but the writing is caught on a snag. Jones is seeking to understand the girls she’s seen staggering down Wind Street, bottle of Lambrusco in hand. But it does seem that in doing so she has taken a look at their lives and decided they’re pretty horrible. Single mother Shell – also played by Jones – talks repeatedly of feeling like her “stomach is full of stones”, while Tash has an abusive father and drug dealer sister. Humour abounds – albeit of the crude, sitcom variety – but it’s never clear if we’re laughing with Tash and Shell, or at them.

Nikolai Ribnikov’s production generates some of the rush of a night out on the lash but the moments involving Shell talking with the ashes of her dead Nan are baggy, and while the play as a whole isn’t exactly ugly, nor is it particularly lovely.

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Verdict
Debut play about the gritty underbelly of Swansea that at times errs uncomfortably towards poverty tourism
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