Review: Ugly / Sherlock Holmes in A Scandal in Bohemia! (and other stories), Tristan Bates Theatre

This week, the Tristan Bates Theatre showcases two strong shows with all-female casts and creatives in Ugly and Sherlock Holmes in A Scandal in Bohemia! (and other stories)

“In a world that profits from self doubt, liking yourself is an act of rebellion”

Written by Perdita Stott and directed by Danäe Cambrook, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Ugly is a devised piece, such is its rambunctious energy and freeform nature. Tackling societal conceptions of beauty and the challenge they place on women who may feel they don’t, or can’t live up to that image, a company of five play thirty different women whose stories all centre on the notion of self-image.

It is inventively and intriguingly done. Cheerleader routines morph into powerful speeches, gospel songs slide into Disney fever dreams, a keep fit session sit right next to aerobic exercise of the bedroom kind. This approach can feel a little scattergun at times, but it is anchored by a deep sincerity to the words being spoken. As tale is layered upon tale, a weightiness is gathered which ultimately feels more effective than what might have been achieved through your regular narrative drive.

The corrosive effect of social media and the pressure to take the perfect photo is achingly portrayed, as is the disturbing revelations about performative fake orgasms for lovers desensitised by porn. But Stott is careful not to suggest her overall thesis is a new phenomenon. Other vignettes point to inherited patterns of behaviour from mothers dealing with their own unhappiness, the ever-pressing issue of how seriously we take the comments of others remains true whether they’ve given on Facebook or face to face.

The company of Eve Atkinson, Shereener Browne, Samantha Bingley, Hannah Marie Davis and Orla Sanders all impress in their own way with a pleasing diversity of UK accents, Davis’ heart-wrenching quiet desperation really hits home though, and Bingley is ferociously good as inner demons try to chip away at an innate confidence. Witty, heartbreaking, wise and fierce – sometimes all at the same time – Ugly makes for a powerful hour of important theatre.

Also with five women in its company and a female-led creative team, Struts and Frets Theatre Company’s Sherlock Holmes in A Scandal in Bohemia! (and other stories) takes a different route to giving women a voice. Writer and director Francesca De Sica riffs on Arthur Conan Doyle by adding an anti-patriarchal lens to her rewriting of the titular short story, adding in swift detours to some other recognisable tales to further bolster her case.

The result here is an amiably rough-edged affair, characterised by the offer of pie and gin as you enter the theatre. The production was designed as a pop-up affair, reflected in a make-do design aesthetic (those camera flashes!) and a multi-roling ensemble, there’s even a touch of audience interaction for the bold. These all enliven what ultimately ends up as an interpretation that doesn’t cleave too far from the source material, albeit with a line of bawdy humour threaded throughout.

The diversions into different stories are among the highlights, not least for their stylistic differences. Boxing matches, shadow puppetry and Punch and Judy are all co-opted into diversifying the story-telling although with a coolly analytical eye, you do wonder if all the additions are strictly necessary, given how they extend the running time. All the same, there’s a fair deal to enjoy here, not least Katharine Blackshaw’s iconic work as Mrs Hudson.

Running time: Ugly 60 minutes (without interval) / Sherlock Holmes in A Scandal in Bohemia! (and other stories) 90 minutes (without interval)
Ugly and Sherlock Holmes in A Scandal in Bohemia! (and other stories) are booking at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 2nd November

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