A new queer indie musical, written and directed by Lucy Matthews and produced by Acoustic Theatre, has come to Sydney’s Flight Path Theatre.
The intimate story centres on Jess (LJ Wilson), a queer woman whose been married to her husband, Sam (Lincoln Elliott), for nine years. For Jess, married life has been getting a little stale, so when the charming burlesque singer Lola (Cypriana Singh) comes into her life and tempts her into the world of polyamory, she finds it difficult to resist. Sam begrudgingly agrees to open up their relationship, but when it becomes clear that Jess’ interest in Lola is anything but casual, tension starts to bubble in the marriage.
The first hour of Ugly Love is a clever, witty and honest look at monogamy, online dating and the complicated nature of love and ownership. Highlights include Singh’s opening number “Try A Girl” a teasing, sensual Burlesque piece in which she wins over the crowd, and the ensemble’s rendition of the exceedingly witty “The Dating Song” about the perils of online dating in 2022.
Unfortunately, the momentum really stalls at the eighty minute mark as the show breaks for an overlong interval. The second act lacked the momentum of the first and failed to justify the existence of the interval. One couldn’t help but thinking that this show (marketed as 2 hours but ended up closer to 2.5 hours including a 20-minute interval), would have benefited a lot from cutting a few unnecessary songs and running 100 minutes straight through.
Ugly Love is at its best when it focuses in on the difficult love triangle between Jess, Sam and Lola, and the implications of that for Jess’ queer identity and her struggles of feeling constrained by monogamy. As a story about these three central characters, the story strikes a great balance in tone between being funny and light-hearted, while also discussing serious relationship issues. The story starts to get away from writer/director Lucy Matthews with the introduction of a storyline about Jess’s best friend Maddi (Madelaine Osborn) who is struggling to break out of an abusive relationship.
Maddi, who previously exists as the comic-relief best friend archetype is now thrust into a serious storyline which considerably darkens the tone. There was a notable tone shift amongst the jovial atmosphere of the packed Tuesday night audience when they realised that this wasn’t the fun, flirty cabaret they thought they were attending. The depiction of how domestic violence can occur through controlling and psychological abuse, not just physical abuse, is an important topic to portray on our stages. However, I’m not sure this was the right play to explore it.
Jess’s struggle to choose between two partners sits firmly at the centre of our story, and the late introduction of Maddi’s controlling boyfriend (who is written as a shallow caricature) feels like an unnecessarily dark diversion in tone. The show tries to depict the storyline sensitively, but it just feels a bit crammed in and ends up being a distraction from Jess’ main storyline. Because the plotline is squeezed in amongst Jess’ romantic indecision, it ends up being wrapped up a bit too cleanly through Maddie leaving her boyfriend in the second act with no repercussions.
Even if I think the show could have benefitted from removing the Maddi abuse plotline, it did bring a particularly moving dance piece starring Osborn and Elliot to “Gas Light” (movement directed by Miriam Slater with Intimacy Coordination by Shondelle Pratt).
Ugly Love well and truly centres Jess, anchored by a strong performance from Wilson who has a lovely voice (Although: Are they old enough to pass as a person 9 years into a marriage? Probably not, but they were otherwise well cast so I’ll let it go). Wilson was well supported by Singh, who was charming as Lola, and Elliott, who plays all the show’s male characters with wit and versatility. The fourth ensemble member, Osborn, is lumped with the difficult task of carrying the domestic abuse plot line which felt tonally out-of-step with the rest of the play, and consequently her character didn’t really work for me.
The ensemble was well supported by a team of crew and musicians to bring Ugly Love to life. I particularly enjoyed the costumes by Kate Beere (who also designed the set) which includes a number of stylish jumpsuits I want to steal and nicely set up the different styles of our three female characters. Beere’s set is minimal, so James Wallis’ lighting designs does most of the heavy lifting of establishing the play’s various location changes, and does so beautifully. The simple design cleverly and efficiently shifts between a bedroom and a burlesque bar, while also hiding the four-member band tucked away at the back. The band, which consisted of Dom Parker, Charlie George, Mike Mills and Jhoan Sebastian Bonilla Bautista did a wonderful job.
Ugly Love is a witty and topical show and Matthews should be applauded for taking on the considerable challenge of bringing a new Australian musical to our stages. I felt lucky to be a part of the audience and hope to see the work develop and grow in future productions. Although a bit too long and stuffed with ideas, at its core, this show has a lot to say about dating, love and queerness in the 21st century, and I encourage you to see it before it closes this Saturday.