Anyone remember Soho Cinders? It was in the Soho Theatre’s main space a couple of seasons ago. It was a subversive – musical – account of the classic Cinderella story. And I very much enjoyed it. If not quite in the same bracket, RashDash’s The Ugly Sisters fits much of the same criteria; it is a delightfully dishevelled and deconstructed retelling, with emphasis and sympathy on the side of Emerald and Pearl, the ugly sisters. Dear old Cinders, or ‘Arabella’ as she is actually called, doesn’t get much of a look in.
The truth is this: Emerald and Pearl were perfectly content living with mum Ruby, exploring burnt-out cars and avoiding touching the needles and, er, ‘rubber babies socks’ that littered the local area. Then things changed. Ruby found a boyfriend, and the clan had to move in with beautiful step-sister Arabella, who enchants Ruby and quickly becomes her favourite daughter, leaving Emerald and Pearl isolated and shunned. Their only hope is to enter a reality TV contest to win a true prince and complete tasks, the kind of mush E4 used to commission.
Ugly sisters Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen make a highly engaging and dynamic pair. There is careful control in their performances, they know just when to whisper and just when to roar. There is also incredible generosity too; they know when to let each other steal a raised eyebrow, or a line, or even an entire scene. They are remarkably raw, almost harrowing to watch. It helps that they are accompanied by three highly capable musicians. Tom Penn, perhaps better known for his work in Little Bulb, Benny Brooke and Jonas Aaron glide effortlessly between each other’s instruments and chip in as the secondary characters of Ruby, Cinderella and Prince.
Whilst perhaps the theme of the manipulative nature of the reality TV industry, the chewed-up and spat-out culture of immediacy, is nothing new (indeed, it even features in Soho Cinders), The Ugly Sisters still has some fairly interesting points to make on the subject. Emerald and Pearl are held up as some ridiculous creatures for a TV audience before being transformed into a grotesque representation of female idealism. My favourite line comes about five minutes in however, when Pearl seeks to ‘reclaim’ the term ‘ugly’ in ‘ugly sisters’ to rid it of its taboo, akin to the ‘queer’ in ‘queer theory’.
But just because The Ugly Sisters‘s main plot concept and themes aren’t new doesn’t mean that as a piece it doesn’t feel exciting and refreshing – it very much does. I think there could well be more in it. It has the potential to evolve into a piece of highly anarchic and boisterous cabaret. So keep an eye out for it.
The Ugly Sisters is at the Soho Theatre until 2 February. For more information and tickets, see the Soho Theatre website.