Lovely Ugly takes place in the dark places, the small places, the places where you would not think to look. It is the story of a murder, but it is not a murder mystery. If anything, it is a journey to the underworld: a journey through a woman’s death and what comes after, a journey below the surface. In a way, it’s also a journey through the underworld of the theatre itself. There is no stage. There is no backstage. The boundaries between the real and the performed waver, flicker, and finally expire, as a room full of people, no longer an audience, sing ‘Space Oddity’ at a wake for a woman they do not know.
I loved Griffin Theatre Company’s immersive experience Heartbreak Hotel last year (you can read what I thought here), so I had high expectations of Lovely Ugly. It did not disappoint. This kind of theatre is certainly not for everyone. It is not the kind of theatre that can be resisted, as one disgruntled audience member in my group discovered when he tried to resist being a ‘witness’ at the chalk outline in the Stables theatre. This isn’t audience participation. I’ve had to do some pretty weird audience participation in my time (most memorably, sock puppet fighting), but there’s still a line that isn’t crossed, a fifth wall unbroken. Immersive theatre like this has no walls. It requires participation, full stop. There is no watching. I defy anyone who got pulled into the men’s bathroom on the third floor of the Kings’ Cross Hotel and interrogated while three people loomed over them menacingly to just ‘watch’. There is only participating, becoming, being.
I love this kind of theatre. I wouldn’t want all my theatre to be like this – intense is too weak a word for this kind of experience – but the rarity of it makes it that much more exciting. For Griffin, located as they are in Kings’ Cross, this tour of the seedy underbelly of a woman’s death worked wonderfully. What began like any other theatrical experience in the foyer of the theatre (though I’ve never put on lipstick and kissed a wall in any other foyer!) turned into a journey down, down, down through the nine circles of Kings’ Cross. There was no Virgil to guide us – rather, there was a series of guides, some mysterious, some ordinary, some implacable, some spectacular. From the chalk outline of the woman’s body in the theatre, through the labyrinthine backstage of the theatre, to a terrace where two men beat up another with a phone book taped to his stomach (so it doesn’t leave bruises, I found out), we followed them. They led us to the Altamont Hotel, where a woman emerged from a pile of clothes, where every room had a different story, and one held the scene of her murder. We saw her funeral arranged, travelled to her wake at the Kings’ Cross Hotel, were pulled aside for lapdances and cups of tea and interrogations and to watch people source kidneys over the phone. People that saw these groups of people wandering around the Cross with their little lipstick badges must have thought we were the weirdest Contiki group ever.
The intensity of theatre like Lovely Ugly comes primarily from the situation. There was some gripping writing and performances along the way (I’m not going to forget some of those fights in the Altamont Hotel any time soon, nor any scene that took place in a bathroom), but in some of the numerous monologues, I confess I tuned out, more in awe of the setting than anything else. There were so many pieces of the puzzle that I couldn’t possibly fit them together (though I was able to remember a random name dropped in the terrace scene when I was being interrogated – perhaps it had something to do with the baseball bat?) However, I don’t think I was supposed to put them together. This wasn’t a murder mystery – not for me, anyway. It was a journey – exciting, terrifying, and gripping, completely in the spirit of Griffin’s Festival of New Writing. I didn’t get the cathartic feeling with Lovely Ugly that I did coming out of Heartbreak Hotel last year, but it was thrilling in a new, different, and exciting way. And I am officially putting ‘Space Oddity’ on my list of ‘Good Songs to be Sung at Wakes’.