Happily ever after?
As The Ugly Sisters considers the Cinderella story from a different perspective, Debbie Brannon muses on the messages fairytales send
Crash, bang, pow! Enter the world of The Ugly Sisters, a dramatisation that takes us on a tumultuous journey exploring the mindset of the eponymous characters in a contemporary version of the classic Cinderella fairytale.
Our first introduction to the sisters, Pearl and Emerald, is as young girls living in a squalid environment deprived of basic needs like protection, food and warmth. This is due to their mother Ruby's low paid, unskilled night shift employment that necessitates her sleeping during the day and being away at night, earning an income that doesn't even cover the essentials for family survival. Pearl and Emerald do not attend school and so spend their time playing together, using their imaginations to act out adventures that keep them occupied during the hours their mother is not available. These adventures, their play, and, most importantly, their thoughts and emotions are presented through a dynamic and heady mix of music, dance, art and dialogue. They are joined on stage by a male band of three, who as well as providing the musical backdrop, double up as the additional characters. These are Ruby, the prince and Esmeralda: the Cinderella character and their new sister, destined in most interpretations to be chosen by the prince as his bride.
Esmeralda is defined almost exclusively by her physical attributes, sweet nature and desirability to men
The drama progresses from here through scenes that relate to different periods in the sisters' lives, leading up to the moment when their mother hooks up with a man who has a daughter deemed to be the personification of femininity (which, despite the time lapse from when the fairy tale was originally written up to the present day, doesn't really seem to have changed a great deal). In other words, Esmeralda is defined almost exclusively by her physical attributes, sweet nature and desirability to men.
This brings us up to date in Pearl and Emerald's story. We are informed that a reality show is looking for young women to take part in a competition that is made up of tasks in which the winner gets to marry a man who has a fortune (or maybe cohabit with: is 2013 after all). Of course, Esmeralda is the favourite, but with our focus on Pearl and Emerald, we are presented with a dramatic comedic transformation of the two of them, from androgynous scruffs to characters exuding the highly sexualised, passive, doll-like appearance of girls and young women so promoted by the mainstream media. They achieve this by using prosthetic props that increase the size of their chests and butts and by changing into tight revealing clothing and high heel shoes. Finally, wigs of flowing, glossy hair complete their transformation into sexually available objects that pander to the male gaze.
Emerald, the more critically outspoken of the two sisters, is resistant to entering the competition initially but after seeing Pearl take the step towards female "empowerment", soon makes the decision to join her, maybe due to her realisation that this is the behaviour expected of her.
The talent of the cast shines brightly
The tasks they are required to undertake as part of the competition are presented as a parody of actual reality shows, in which young men and women predominantly flaunt their sexuality to earn a prize, which in the process fuels their chances of achieving celebrity status. Examples of the two sisters' tasks include dancing for the prince and "being sexy" for him. These tasks are written on cards and shown to the audience in preparation for what follows. This part of the show will make you roar with laughter as the two sisters perform these tasks with pseudo passion and enthusiasm, resulting in grossly overemphasised caricatured performances that highlight the ridiculousness of such scenarios being passed off as culturally acceptable behaviour within this genre of TV entertainment.
As is the pattern throughout the performance, there is a sudden contrasting mood change as we move on to the final scene, which conveys a darker side of the sexualisation of girls in to commodities to be bought and sold. This leads us to pause for thought right at the moment when the cast line up for their bows.
This performance has it all: music, drama, dance, tension, topicality, comedy and audience interaction, all packed tightly and effectively in to one hour. The talent of the cast shines brightly and the range of musical instruments used to create a mood, together with the artistic and creative set pieces and use of props, creates a show that purposefully attacks, from all directions, all of the senses, sometimes all at once, throughout the whole of the performance.
Ugly Sisters continues its tour of English towns and cities, with more performances to come in 2014.
Northern Stage, Newcastle: 22-23 October
Theatre Royal, Wakefield: 6 November
The Barnsley Civic: 9 November
New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich: 10 November
Photos are by Richard Davenport. Picture 1 shows two women on stage standing in front of microphones, with a sign that says "Transform" above them. Picture 2 shows a woman shouting into a microphone. Picture 3 shows a woman holding a drumstick and singing or shouting into a microphone.