Ugly Duck was the only production that got more than one night at this year’s Capital Theatre Festival held at mac, giving it a special ranking as one of the bigger events. The play, firmly set in Stoke, is about struggling middle aged Dennis who takes on a job as a life model for painter Kat Drosdzowski. What starts out as apologetic ignorance about art from Dennis eventually spans to conflict with Kat and her family about cultural identity and racism.
Before tackling these heavy themes the play begins very light-hearted, making easy jokes at Dennis’s discomfort when stripping down to model. However at times it felt like too many jokes were signposted with stares at the audience initiating cues for laughter. The humour that got a healthier reception was more subtle, like clever wordplay about sticking-out arses. Even small gestures such as Dennis returning to the stage wearing the flowery robe got good laughs.
The most enjoyment from this play came through the way it set up and tried to address important issues. In the third scene of the first act Dennis talks about his family and his employment woes in greater detail. Here the play begins to delve into a deeper meaning which continues when Dennis becomes uneasy after learning Kat and her family are Polish. However it should be said the play doesn’t sharply turn from funny to serious; jokes of a similar vain to earlier appear, but less frequently.
Considering the play describes Dennis as a Port Vale fan in the second line of its synopsis I was disappointed at the lack of football references by the interval. The reward came in the first scene after the restart, and arguably the best of the play. Dennis and Mark, both running away from family problems, discover each other sleeping rough in the art studio. The chemistry of Phillip Wright and James Masters is fantastic here as their bloke chat about ‘kids these days’ and football can’t help but bring a smile.
Drawing to the conclusion, the attack on an Albanian Port Vale fan is reported and quickly it is discovered that Dennis is involved. The dilemmas regarding Dennis’s beloved son being an instigator of the attack, Dennis’s isolation from his friends, and the larger problem of racism is dealt with the line “Not everyone’s a racist in Stoke.” This, and the unveiling of the beautiful painting of himself, is a good enough resolution for Dennis. Yet it felt like there was more to discuss and the disputes were not satisfactorily resolved.
Ugly Duck is a solid play that gets you to laugh one way or another. Important issues are addressed and there are scenes of quality, but disappointingly the happy ending undermines the devastating state Dennis’s life is left in.