January 26, 2014 9:03 pm

The Ugly Sisters, Soho Theatre, London – review

A spiky retelling of the Cinderella story from RashDash theatre company
'The Ugly Sisters'©Richard Davenport

'The Ugly Sisters'

“Whoever holds the pen tells the story.” That’s the mantra behind theatre company RashDash’s spiky retelling of the Cinderella story. Twin sisters Emerald (Abbi Greenland) and Pearl (Helen Goalen) are out to “reclaim” the word ugly, and tell us what really happened. It’s a punchy 75-minute piece dotted with musical numbers and stylised choreography, accompanied by a live band whose members double as the other characters.

Emerald and Pearl begin by relating their childhood in a leaky house with one bed shared with their mother Ruby, a worn-down woman who insists they call her Ruby, not mum. While Ruby is out working at several cleaning jobs, the girls play in a burnt-out car round the back. They can do anything they like, they boast, except touch the needles. Life is good until Ruby gets a boyfriend and announces that they’re moving in with him and his daughter Arabella.

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Arabella’s life is portrayed as a demented, relentless dance of riding hats, ballet tutus and swimming armbands – some of the only props that aren’t imagined in this stripped down, if not exactly minimalist, production. No one takes much notice of the ugly sisters, now teenagers, next to Arabella. No one even realises it was Emerald who gave Cinderella her famous name – adapted from “Arabella” owing to her resemblance to a Cindy doll. When the ugly sisters see a television advert calling for women to enter a reality show-style competition to win the hand of The Prince, they see their chance to shine . . . 

The Ugly Sisters evokes an aspirational culture – not unlike our own – where celebrity and superficial beauty are prized, and the working classes demonised. And yet that’s all it is, an evocation, not an exploration – and it feels frustratingly light. The blend of physical theatre and cabaret is impressive, yet style often overwhelms substance. Discordant notes and nervy, jerky movements suggest violent undertones, but there is little character development. Why does Ruby suddenly decide that Arabella is a princess who must call her mummy, for instance?

The show was a hit at Edinburgh Fringe last summer, and it brings some of that festival’s messy experimentation with it. There’s plenty to like here – funky music, expressive performances, a countercultural spirit – but not enough to love.


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