I never imagined a Venn diagram depicting interactive Christmas entertainment and soothing satire during a dystopian general election would exhibit much overlap, but somehow, in the first two weeks of December 2019, we find ourselves sitting atop these two circles so closely aligned we can barely see the edges. The first line of Alfred Jarry’s legendary riot-inducing 1896 play proclaims, ‘Merdre!’ (an inept cuss with an extra consonant uttered by a sociopathic power-crazed narcissistic clown) and the collective howl and ridiculousness of the audience’s given mess du jour together with the everlasting absurdity of the human condition are voiced. With toilet brush sceptres and cardboard crowns, the farce of King Ubu allowed the release of tension, pleasure and outrage in equal measures.
Thankfully Kneehigh’s UBU! A Singalong Satire has come along just in the nick of time some 123 years later to offer us outstanding tunes and like-minded company when they are most needed: these dark days of Crimbo-lection. Like the world’s best New Year’s Eve party for people who hate the hype and cliché of New Year’s Eve but could really do with some respite from the gloom and cold, Kneehigh’s UBU is a proper bash. It is fun. It is silly. It is not remotely subtle. But you’re in for a good time and not a lecture or misery-porn. With origins in Cornwall, there is something extra-satisfying about this variation on a Punch and Judy show that packs extra punch with its ultra-seaside vaudeville-meets-dada piss-taking.
Flowing over two-hours with a central raised stage, the vibe is festival-meets-cabaret. If you require seating, you can have it but most take to the floor and dance and groove. There is significant elevated scaffolding which affords an excellent view and railings on which to lean that gives the feeling of beholding a parade (which I enjoyed). Wherever you place yourself, there is plenty of camaraderie without claustrophobia. The band, Nandi Bhebhe and the Sweaty Bureaucrats, is world-class and would be entertaining on their own, but as part of the performance piece – which is part musical agit-prop, part-dance-off – it is magnificent.
With a soundtrack that is deliciously Generation X but welcoming to Millennials, people who are averse to karaoke may find themselves compelled to sing along. Somehow Kneehigh has managed to crack many of the seasonal audience participation traditions without making you feel like you are partaking in a necessary ritual. They elicit spontaneous joy rather than coerce it via social conformity. It’s mysterious how a show that is so anarchic (and historically rooted in same) can feel so convivial and warm, but it does. At the end of the evening a screen reveals the maxim: ‘We’re fools whether we sing or not so we might as well sing.’ This same spirit of canny pragmatism and celebration of silliness pervades and elevates the evening.
Nandi Bhebhe is an outstanding singer and dancer, electrifying the performance whilst she, along with fellow vocalist Justin Lee Radford and the other musicians, hit it home with well-chosen numbers that enliven and conspire with the audience. The degree of connection between the audience and the performers showed a bond, without contrivance, that is seldom witnessed. Kneehigh’s co-director, Mike Shepherd plays Mrs Ubu to Katy Owen’s Mr Ubu. As broad and comedia-dell’arte-on-crack as you’d imagine, they give us political toilet humour to straddle three centuries and it still works. Kneehigh have added a ‘meta’ dimension to the story-telling (it is, after all a musical singalong hootenanny sort of show) using other characters to express the cultural narrative, censorship and facilitate audience vignettes and it largely works well. The performance is intended to flow like a concert or a circus and doesn’t require silence or obedience (quite the contrary) so it has moments that may not be as compelling as others but those enable trips to the bar or chit-chat with your fellows.
Although this touring show feels like it couldn’t hit the bulls-eye more precisely than as R&R for the permanently politically-outraged right now, I suspect the reality is that the piece is fluid enough, and Kneehigh are so skilled, as to enable their performance pretty much always to feel like its running in an optimal satirical moment every night.
Review by Mary Beer
Directed by Kneehigh’s Co-Artistic Directors Carl Grose and Mike Shepherd, and originally staged at the Asylum, Ubu! A Singalong Satire is a raucously funny, in-yer-face yet artful, interrogation of power and populism in these febrile times.
Inspired by Alfred Jarry’s riot inducing masterpiece from 1896, this semi-improvised musical-in-promenade puts the audience firmly at its heart. In an unruly evening of music, irreverence and surprise, this brilliantly dark comedy transports the audience into a peculiar yet strangely familiar landscape, where classic favourite songs rub up against theatre’s most anarchic creation – King Ubu.
The full cast of performers includes Kneehigh regulars Niall Ashdown, Kyla Goodey, Robi Luckay, Alex Lupo, Katy Owen, Justin Radford, Dom Coyote, Nandi Bhebhe, and Mike Shepherd, plus newcomer Renell Shaw.
Kneehigh’s Ubu! A Singalong Satire
Conceived by Carl Grose, Charles Hazlewood and Mike Shepherd
Created by the Company and designed by Michael Vale
Based on the play by Alfred Jarry
Wednesday 4th to Saturday 21st December at Shoreditch Town Hall, London
PRESS NIGHT: FRIDAY 6 DECEMBER AT 7.30PM