The Ugly is one of those shows where you come for the black leather and promise of nudity, and stay for the emotional catharsis.
I knew the performers’ entrance onto the stage would make an impression but I still wasn’t prepared for the lush blue and red kimono and yellow-cowboy-booted Joe Lui to strut on in a gold fringe face mask, or for Phoebe Sullivan’s bejewelled devil horns and crimson red lingerie set. From the get go it was clear we were in for a wild ride.
The enthusiasm on stage was infectious and soon they had us whooping and cheering along to Phoebe’s exuberant striptease accompanied by Joe playing one of three ornate electric guitars. On an otherwise sleepy Tuesday night in Northbridge the energy in the Blue Room was invigorating and all of us in the audience were united in our enthusiasm. Phoebe’s confidence and zeal in such a titillating and physically demanding burlesque performance was captivating.
Joe Paradise Lui and Phoebe Sullivan in The Ugly. Photography by Daniel Grant.
Their stage names, Hot Blonde Slut and Yellow Fever, which became the titles of their early songs, were the first sign that the show was about to take a turn for the satirical. Joe and Phoebe played into the stereotypes of how they are perceived and judged based on their race and gender, eventually disrupting the playful, sordid atmosphere to examine how those stereotypes inform their own identities and the expression of their desires. One very dramatic costume change and a heart-rending ballad later, their spellbinding monologues had them laid bare both emotionally and physically. I think I held my breath the entire time.
The Ugly tackles the very complex issue of how to reconcile one’s privileges with one’s disadvantages through the medium of music and striptease, and the result is fun, profound, and breath-taking. The line that really got me was “how do I say I’m sorry without demanding your forgiveness?” My jaw was on the floor among Phoebe’s discarded lingerie. I could write essays about the societal norms examined and agonised over on that stage, and many have, but honestly, I couldn’t do it better than Joe and Phoebe did themselves. Their unburdening was stunningly articulate and has given me food for thought for the next few weeks at least. The emotional denouement embodied the power of the arts to challenge expectations and to incite positive change.
Anyone who likes a fun evening of sexy music and intellectual rigour should see The Ugly. Seriously, buy yourself a ticket and take along someone in need of having their worldview shaken up. You won’t regret it.
The Ugly is on now until the 12th of Feb at The Blue Room Theatre.