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Ugly Mugs

Photo by Brett Boardman

Griffin Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre present the World premiere of UGLY MUGS by Peta Brady, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross. 18 July – 23 August.

UGLY MUGS, by Peta Brady, arrives in Sydney at the Griffin SBW Stables, from Malthouse Theatre, in Melbourne. The title of the play is the name sex workers use for aggressive clients. It is, also the name of a pamphlet published by the Prostitute Collective of Victoria (now RHED) that has been in existence since 1986. Ms Brady in her program notes:

Street-based sex work is illegal in Victoria. This anomaly in the law creates barriers between police and the street-based sex workers, who are hence less likely to report violent clients (known as ‘mugs’). It strips street-based sex workers of the legal rights that others, in different occupations, take for granted, and leaves the community more vulnerable.

Ms Brady, besides writing and acting, has, also, worked, in a long-standing commitment, as an outreach worker with this community, and has a complex understanding of the world of which she writes in this play.

A doctor, Doc, (Steve Le Marquand) wheels a morgue gurney onto the stage with a dead Working Girl (Peta Brady) laid out on it. The doctor begins an examination of the body. Matter of factly, without any of the gadgetry of the CSI television shows we know, including, my favourite, SILENT WITNESS, details are recorded. One of the conceits of the writing is that this corpse is no silent witness and, actually, begins the play with a description of her last encounter with an ugly mug. Verbal interplay between the Doc and the Working Girl follows. From the interior of her single surviving black boot, the doctor extracts a copy of a grassroots pamphlet: UGLY MUGS. It has recorded first hand descriptions and warnings for the street sex workers on clients to identify and avoid. This part of the play reveals scientific observations that are co-related to a particular mug, traced through the pamphlet, that leads to evidence and, perhaps, to a justice for this victim of violence on the street.

Running parallel, is another story that tells of a gauche and slightly violent encounter between a young boy, the Son (Harry Boland), and a tough Footy Girl at the beginnings of her delusion of the easy money gained through street sex (Sara West), in the same park where a murder has taken place, that he has observed. As well we observe his consequential, co-incidental, circumstantial incrimination over that dead woman – our, previously met, Working Girl. His Mum (Peta Brady) attempts to make sense of his arrested predicament, and to give assistance and reassurance to her Son in the local police prison cell.

Purchasing the theatre program, one receives a pre-rehearsal copy of the script, published by Currency Press – ($10 – a deal, indeed). The play, subsequently read, had more impact, and was more impressive than the production of the play, that I watched, under the direction of Marion Potts. The specifics of the vernacular language of the play is entirely believable and impresses with a true sense of authenticity. Too, the ‘poetry’ in Ms Brady’s prose is remarkable – it is a well written, sometimes, beautiful text, despite all the subterranean darknesses of its realities. The writer’s work is impressive. But, my experience of the performance was that of a ‘flat-lined’ text – nearly, for me, DOA – dead, like the major character, the Working Girl, on arrival.

This production has had a season of performances in Melbourne, and I felt there was a comfortability of performance effort, on the night I attended, that gave us more than less, an emotionally generalised, and  approximate ‘gist’  of the storytelling. It seemed to be too familiar to the actors, who, generally, played a ‘recited’ practice of the events of the play, rather than one that was a breathed ‘in the moment’ discovery, happening. The spoken word, the language, the vehicle of the story was blurred. It lacked, both, ‘in the moment’ ownership and high stakes, and so was relatively dull in the necessary excitement of the telling. The playing of the production lacked critical urgency, intentional clarity, and unlike the inspirational affect that Ms Potts talks of experiencing with The Malthouse’s Associate Writer, Van Badham, of being ‘transfixed’, ‘horrified’, “moved’, and ‘confronted’ by their own ignorance of this subject matter, a kind of a sense of the middle class ‘worthiness’ of the tackling of the subject matter in our theatre, rather than that of being transfixed, horrified, moved or confronted with social outrage was the major communication.

Applause. Down to the foyer. “Well done, now let’s get a drink.” “What do you think of the Belvoir announcement?”

Mr Boland (this is Mr Boland’s stage debut – a huge ask, I reckon) and Ms West tended to use the language of the characters to project a set of generalised emotional states, and allowed that impulse to blur the word by word, phrase by phrase information in the lines. I understood the characters ‘feelings’ without, necessarily, knowing why they were experiencing them. The text should be the primary objective of the actors if they are storytellers and not re-creators, demonstrators of emotion. The emotions will arrive to support the story, if the information in the line is clear. The audience will endow that emotion from the combined clues of the oral and physical clues that the actors have crafted for us to deal with, interpret. This is evidently clear in the work of Ms Brady, particularly in her creation of the Mum, that has an exactness of owned language and disciplined body cues. Mr Le Marquand, too is remarkable in the effortless ownership of the scenes he creates as the Mug in his interaction with the Son – a potent creation of powerful menace, employing a deep presence and ownership of it – though, less arresting as the Doc, I thought.

There is expert craft in the simple but effective bare grey design of the floor, with grit, surrounded by black walls, by Michael Hankin, the apt costuming as well. The moody, severe atmospherics of ‘clouds’ of fluorescent tubes in the Lighting Design by Lucy Birkinshaw are also ominous in their effect. The look anticipates a bleakness, and verite, a convincing truthfulness that the performers, on my night, did not deliver.

UGLY MUGS, an arresting script, but one that requires specifics, more precision, in the craft of the acting of it.