Writer: Carl Grose
Directors: Carl Grose and Mike Shepherd
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Ubu! A Singalong Satire from theatre company Kneehigh is easily the show of the year. Updating Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi of 1896, a play about an evil dictator, into a karaoke setting may seem like a bonkers idea, but Kneehigh bring the house down. And the audience sings for all its worth!
This Ubu begins at the end of an election and Nick Dallas has been voted in as President of Lovelyville for another four years. He seems like a good guy, if a little distracted, and spurred on by his daughter Bobbi he takes pity on a homeless couple, Mr and Mrs Ubu. This act of philanthropy proves to be a big mistake, as the Ubus have power in their sights, and they soon begin a plan to assassinate the president.
While this storyline may not sound much different from Jarry’s original text, Kneehigh’s staging is inventive and thrilling, involving the audience on every level. With a live band playing at the back of a thrust stage, the audience is invited to sing a long to the tracks that they play. The lyrics of the songs appear on digital screens and so there is no excuse for not joining in. The songs are joyously varied too: The Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK, Britney Spears’ Toxic, and The Carpenters’ Close to Me are just a few of the songs that have the audience singing and dancing. With no seats to speak of, the audience throngs around the stage or leans on bleachers at the sides of the handsome room in Shoreditch Town Hall, and with the action happening all around it’s impossible not to participate on some level.
The wars, which ensue between Ubu and the people, are chaotically and spectacularly realised with ping-pong balls and inflatables. There’s even a Lovelyville Olympics with cash prizes. There’s not a dull moment in this production, which extends over two and half hours, but goes by in a flash. The small cast are indefatigable, and as Ubu Katy Owen is extraordinary, bringing clowning into her performance. She teeters and topples all over the stage, her facial expressions both comedic and hideous, fiercely channelling the vulgar foul-mouthed character than Jarry had in mind. Michael Vale’s design, too, echoes Jarry’s woodcuts of his famous antihero.
Playing Mrs Ubu, and who is just as funny, is Mike Shepherd, also co-director, and while gender-swapped roles are very common now, he brings something of the pantomime dame to his grotesque performance. Bolshie and crude, Shepherd is a delight. Infatuated with Mrs Ubu, is Captain Shittabrique, and Robi Luckay nicely underplays his performance ensuring that he remains a hero even when his libido misjudges.
Our other hero turns out to be Bobbi, and Kyla Goodey excels here, innocent and slightly goofy, and her Eye of the Tiger routine is one of the many highlights of the evening. Keeping control of the proceedings is our very funny narrator Niall Ashdown. It’s a tough job as sometimes the audience, as the residents of Lovelyville, want to take matters into its own hands. But his charmingly bad jokes prove, ultimately, irresistible.
The band, The Sweaty Bureaucrats, have their own parts to play too with singer Nandi Bhebhe proving to be very handy on the dance floor, and singer Dom Coyote killing every song he sings. His voice, especially in songs like Cameo’s Word Up, is truly impressive. But this is a joint effort, and together the band and the actors produce a performance that truly feels new and groundbreaking.
Part party and part political protest Ubu! A Singalong Satire is one of the best nights you could possibly have. One day all theatre will be like this.
Runs until 21 December 2019 | Image: Steve Tanner