Review by Miranda Michalowski
A new Australian indie musical about polyamorous relationships is an intriguing concept. Polyamory isn’t explored that much in popular media, and it can often be seen as pretty taboo. That's why it's exciting that Lucy Matthews created a thought-provoking, heartfelt new musical about love in all its permutations, that brings this topic into the spotlight.
‘Ugly Love’ is an indie musical currently playing at the Flight Path Theatre in Marrickville. Written and directed by Lucy Matthews, the show follows a married couple, Sam and Jess, who become bored by the monotony of domesticity after 9 years of monogamous partnership. When Jess meets the enchanting burlesque dancer/barista, Lola, she is tempted to dip her toes into polyamory, and she and Sam agree to an open relationship. But it all gets complicated when Jess falls head-over-heels for Lola, and Sam realises that he might be in too deep. Will Jess be willing to prioritise her 9-year marriage and make Sam the centre of her universe? Or will she be swayed by the excitement of a new romance with Lola? Is it possible to have it all without things getting ugly? Well, that’s a good question.
LJ Wilson is charming and impressively naturalistic as Jess, conveying the inner conflict of a young woman who wants to explore her sexuality without sabotaging her marriage along the way. Their fizzy chemistry with co-star Lola (Cypriana Singh) is a genuine joy to watch. Singh also gives a compelling and vocally stunning performance as Lola. Her first appearance to the audience is as Lola-the-burlesque-performer, who enchants the audience (and Jess) by singing “come on and try a girl”. But Singh also manages to win the audience over in Lola’s more human moments, as the character is also struggling to balance two relationships: one with Jess and the other with her long-term girlfriend Michelle.
The other half of this cast, Madelaine Osborn and Lincoln Elliot, are given the challenging task of alternating between multiple roles. Elliot mostly plays Sam, Jess’s husband who reluctantly agrees to become an “ethical slut”, under the assumption that he and Jess might both have crazy one-night stands. But Sam falls down a spiral of resentment and regret after he sees his wife fall hard for someone else. The way Matthews’ has written this relationship between Jess and Sam is captivating because it doesn’t try to moralise. Jess isn’t wrong for wanting to find love in more than one place, and Sam also isn’t a bad person for feeling jealous. Love can be ugly. But it's exhilarating to see a show that tries to look deeper into this complexity, rather than shying away from it.
Elliot also plays the role of Lola’s co-worker and fellow performer Gus (who offers some comic relief) and the abusive boyfriend of Jess’s best friend Maddi. These roles were all distinguished clearly, although I did find Elliot more believable as Sam than as Maddi’s jealous and manipulative boyfriend.
Similarly, Madelaine Osborn plays two roles: that of Jess’s tough and quick-witted best friend Maddi, and that of Michelle, Lola’s workaholic girlfriend. Osborn is particularly wonderful as Maddi, offering some great comic moments while crafting a sensitive portrayal of a woman coming to terms with her abusive relationship. Maddi transitions from defending her partner as a “good guy”, to realising how the abuse has worn her down and hindered her ability to trust herself. This inner conflict is beautifully explored by Osborn in the song ‘Gas Light’, with some clever and tender lyrics by Matthews. Another musical highlight was ‘Dating Song’, a number that featured all four performers and used playful choreography to highlight the troubles of modern dating.
The 'Ugly Love' band also deserve praise for their work. While they remain hidden behind a curtain on stage for the majority of 2 hours, they are the beating heart of this show. The music is supported by atmospheric lighting from designer James Wallis – I particularly enjoyed the ‘window’ lighting effect. The set consists of a red curtain, which conceals the band, along with a lamp and a bed platform. The choice of the bedroom set is fitting, and the design effectively evokes a sense of domesticity while still allowing for location changes.
Lucy Matthews’ creation is full of heart and shows the beauty amidst the ugliness. The team have created a genuinely moving show, that confronts its audience to reflect on their own ideas about love and connection. Because, as 'Ugly Love' shows us, things are rarely as simple as they seem.
I look forward to seeing where this show goes.
Image Credit: Katje Ford