Review: Ugly Duck, The New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme

One of the great strengths of theatre-in-the-round is that it gives actors nowhere to hide.

Review: Ugly Duck, The New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme

Rachel Austin as Kat. Image by Andrew Billington

Never is this more literally true than when unemployed loser Dennis, desperate for the fifteen-pounds-an-hour on offer as artist Kat’s life model, climbs onto a pedestal in front of her easel, squirms, evades, agonises, but finally doffs the skimpy ‘gay’ kimono she has lent him and exposes all.

In the space for painting she has made in a redundant pot bank in Burslem, Kat is determined “to get to the truth”. She tells Dennis to “have the courage to show me who you are; to show me you’ve got balls.”

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Philip Wright as Dennis
Philip Wright as Dennis. Image by Andrew Billington

But as they begin work as artist and model, we see how hard it is for them to know who they really are – with or without clothes on.

Their growing confidence is interrupted by incursions into the studio by Kat’s interfering mother Drina and father Mark, a ‘Polish’ plumber determined to upgrade the studio’s disgusting toilet. Born in the Potteries, Mark still doesn’t know whether he’s a Pole or a Potter – and falls back on being a Plumber.

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Dennis is a true Stokie because both he and his parents were born in the Potteries, but he lost the sense of identity associated with his trade when he was made redundant five years earlier.

These two men find common ground - over beer and football - in a surprisingly tender scene which finds them thrust together in the studio late at night. The experience steers Dennis towards dramatic action in the second act which brings him both pain and self-realisation: “I want to look on the outside how I feel on the inside.”

That’s the cue for Kat’s art, which should be “strange, flaky, and  impossibly dangerous,” to deliver the goods.

This new play by Deborah McAndrew is finely crafted and packs an emotionally powerful punch. Having ‘only’ lived in North Staffordshire for thirteen years, she plays brilliantly to a local audience which laps up the affectionate humour she milks from the provincialism of the Five Towns. As a foreigner from North Shropshire, I wondered if the parochialism hadn’t put a boundary round the play’s ambition.

As for the nudity – no need for a health warning. There is none of Gerard Depardieu’s saggy belly and dangly bits in Welcome to New York. Nor is there the shock of raw and naked vulnerability in Equus. Philip Wright plays Dennis with a fine sensibility whether he’s showing us metaphorically or literally that he’s got balls.

Runs until Saturday September 13

By John Hargreaves

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