I am grateful that the creative juices behind Am I Pretty? managed to keep their play focused on a certain type of cosmetic surgery. By ‘type’ I really mean ‘category’ – that is, the play is a pragmatic consideration of the sort of cosmetic surgery that is performed because somebody has a body image problem and wishes to resolve this by going under the knife. This, then, excludes things like surgery performed on victims of road traffic accidents, or military personnel disfigured whilst on active service.
The NHS, according to its online ‘guide to cosmetic procedures’, calls the latter sort of procedures ‘plastic surgery’, which it asserts is ‘different from cosmetic surgery’. For their purposes, what they call cosmetic surgery is generally not available on the NHS, and what they call plastic surgery can be available in certain circumstances.
If I am getting rather technical, the play does so to a much greater extent, in a long scene describing – if I recall correctly – chin surgery. It goes into considerable detail and includes frequent use of medical terminology, most of which went over my head. I’ve never had cosmetic surgery, but I have had a cataract removed privately: I was reassured by what I was being told at the time, even if I couldn’t fully comprehend everything. The approach taken pre-cosmetic surgery seems remarkably similar to my own experience, with lots of diagrams and talk about what surgical instruments were going to be used, and so on. Some things sounded frankly gruesome, but formed accurate descriptions of what was to come for the patient. And as with almost any sort of surgery, there’s much in the way of what my cataract surgeon described as ‘aftercare’, most of which is self-administered.
This play, then, desires to discover whether cosmetic surgery is necessary. The answer is not, in the end, clear-cut, especially when a cosmetic surgery consultant starts reeling off example after example of people who had confidence issues and low self-esteem. These patients apparently felt much better about themselves post-surgery, able to face the world with confidence. This production seems to put forward the notion that a desire to make physical changes to one’s body has a psychological root. Far from being judgemental or blaming an apparent rise in cosmetic surgery procedures entirely on the media, the play suggests there is nothing inherently wrong with cosmetic surgery itself, insofar as those who want it and can afford it are entitled to exercise their prerogative. They are, after all, keeping cosmetic surgeons and their assistants employed.
There is, as with most good plays, more than one dimension to the story, and some time is devoted to considering possible complications, both physical and psychological, post-surgery. In the first half, there were too many scene changes, making the play seem rushed before it later settles into a steady rhythm.
The relative lack of staging and props meant the scene changes themselves are well-executed and don’t break the momentum of the play too much. It’s not for everyone – some will prefer being taken on a journey by way of a personal narrative, as opposed to the abstract approach taken here, in which so many different opinions are voiced. That so many views are put forward without eventually bamboozling the audience is a formidable achievement.
An impressively balanced and absorbing production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Presented by Theatre Counterpoint
Is cosmetic surgery moral, immoral, an art form, a marvel of modern science, a harmeless contrivance of the rich and vein or something more insidious that is changing our culture, how we think, feel, and talk about our bodies?
Am I Pretty? is an original devised performance which examines current issues around the self, body image, and cosmetic surgery. Jazz structure informs the piece as the performers play with rhythm, movement, and sounds to create a sense of musicality and delve into the important question: “what do we want to see when we look at ourselves and what lengths will we go to achieve it?”
6th to 8th April 2017