Director: Carl Grose and Michael Shepherd
Writer: Carl Grose
Based on Alfred Jarry’s 1896 riot-triggering play which caused outrage with its obscene challenge of the stifled, conservative standards of 19th Century theatre, Kneehigh’s Ubu! A Singalong Satire seeks to subvert contemporary theatrical norms by encouraging audiences to keep their phones on, grab a drink at the bar, walk around, and nip out for a wee as and when. The problem is, in an age where participation, crass content and anti-establishment sentiment in the arts is no longer mould-breaking or even remotely revolutionary, this revival, for all the valiant commitment of its cast and creative team, simply falls flat.
Originally a parody of a fusion of Shakespearian tragedies, Kneehigh’s lack of nuance sees their revival fall far short of its self-titled label of ‘satire’. The programme highlights that in Jarry’s original production “the jokes were completely lame (deliberately so, of course)”, the jokes are similarly lifeless in this 2020 comeback, though it’s clear that the company are valiantly trying to entertain you and are very much playing for laughs, they very much want you to have a good time. It would have produced a far more edgy piece if there was a bit more of a sense of risk – a feeling of uncertainty and mild anxiety in the audience rather than the safe assurance that you’re in a theatre with a group of talented performers who want you to have a good time. At no point does the auditorium feel like an unsafe space, in fact the performance feels more like an text-book tick list of Brechtian methods than an arena of anarchical expression and rebellion. It’s an excellent outing for school groups, for whom jokes about genitals and anuses are still considered taboo and risky, but the edginess doesn’t translate to those whose school days are years behind them.
It’s with a very heavy heart that you exit the theatre feeling exhausted and un-invigorated, because you want so much to like this show. Performances are impressively committed, delivered at amplified levels with admirable stamina, with particular mention to Michael Shepherd’s wonderfully characterised Mrs Ubu and Niall Ashdown’s delightfully earnest Host. Audiences are in the hands of a talented cast, yet it just doesn’t work. You’re promised an experience like no other, yet the fairly standard staging doesn’t lend itself to a mobile audience that mills around the space drinking and dancing as the company desire. Political comments and derogatory references to Boris Johnson, Piers Morgan and Jeremy Clarkson come across as crowd pleasing and pedestrian. You’re left longing for something that feels truly controversial and on the edge, there are no gasps, not even that many guffaws, mostly just giggles – and sadly that’s a fair assessment of a show that’s clearly trying so hard to say something, but ultimately just says nothing.
Runs until 1 February 2020