Theatre is getting pretty damn good at the Malthouse. I am aware that a statement such as this leads one to assume that things used to be otherwise and that is indeed not my intention. There is, however, something exciting and bold bubbling away under the surface at this playhouse. In their 2013 season, they brought me one of my favourite shows of the year, Dance of Death and last week I had a wonderful theatre going experience at opening night of Peta Brady’s latest play, Ugly Mugs.

The subject matter was sordid and with this play, Brady mined the dramatic territory of violence and mistreatment towards sex workers at the hands of their clientele. While this sounds like dark subject matter that has the potential to remain on the surface and play the same note throughout, the writing by contrast achieved lightness; poignant cultural references; great structure and an intriguing poetic prose. I would say that this combination of elements gave it the dramatic weight it maintained throughout.

In addition to these story elements, the show had some impressive lighting and sound effects (kudos to both Lucy Birkinshaw and Darrin Verhagen) who achieved something in the realm of stark and provocative. The set and costume design by Michael Hankin was simple but spot-on and indeed contributed to the success and believability of the characters.

With regards to performances, I must say for me, there were moments in scenes between the young Harry Borland and Sara West that didn’t always master the tone required for characters who occupied a lower socio-economic space. I say this with trepidation because the moments were few and overall, they both achieved a strong level of comedy (where appropriate) and developed a very palpable chemistry with one another.

My main applause will, of course, be reserved for writer/actress, Peta Brady. She was engaging, humorous and tragic as both the murdered sex worker/ghost and the loveable but volatile mother of the wayward teen (played by Borland). She really captured with insight the appropriate tone and energy required for the respective roles. She did this with enormous compassion and affection for her characters. I didn’t have to look far after the play to find out that Peta (in addition to her creative endeavours) is also a needle and syringe program worker in St Kilda. It was through this work that Brady came across an initiative called Ugly Mugs (formally known as the Prostitute Collective) which began in the eighties to warn street workers about certain suspect clientele to be aware of.

Ugly Mugs took me through the whole gamut of emotions and it was done with skill, affection and understanding for these characters and their respective plights. With the rise of violence particularly against women occurring on Melbourne’s streets in recent years, the subject matter of Ugly Mugs was sensitive for audiences but indeed crucial matter to be explored and discussed. The play is showing at the Malthouse until the 7th of June so if you’re not one to shy away from provocative material, I’d recommend making your way down to Sturt Street before you miss this little gem.

 

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