The on-stage squabbles between Victoria Melody and her father, Mike (who play themselves) are, in some respects, not unlike the bickering that goes on between characters in a soap opera. The lines of communication are kept open between father and daughter, and while their approaches to life (and death) are wildly different, as a whole, the show is a fascinating insight into the funeral industry as well as inter-generational dynamics.
Prior to Mike’s misdiagnosis, Victoria was tasked with making funeral arrangements. The subject matter is an unlikely choice for a comedy play, but then again, there have been weddings that have felt more like funerals, and funerals that have felt more like a birthday party. Their ideas of what constitutes a good funeral are like chalk and cheese. There are compelling reasons to support either line of argument – Victoria wants something pleasant and poignant, and Mike wants something far more raw and celebratory. The premise for the play, stripped to its essentials, comes about as a result of not wanting so much hard work and effort into a funeral that will now not take place (at least, not for some time) to go to waste. So why not put it all into a show instead? Quite why it’s called Ugly Chief is explained in the narrative, and I won’t give it away here.
A long preamble includes a full introduction to each member of the on-stage band, complete with back-stories and anecdotes. Victoria points out, with a tad of mischievousness, that the band is to “give the scenes emotional depth”. I mention it because ordinarily, I would have found the amount of music that plays in this production, particularly when it underscores dialogue, rather irritating and distracting. But the straightforward explanation, which came like what I call a ‘health warning’ prior to party political broadcasts on television, is easy to bear in mind.
The sheer forthrightness from both performers is refreshing, as are the direct addresses to the audience, even if one starts talking about the other, usually in less than wholly positive terms, whilst the other is still on stage. Video technology is used to good and comical effect – in the first half, a series of different coffins available to purchase from Funeralcare, each one more unnecessarily elaborate than the previous one. In the second half, a short film called Pissed Off Pumpkin had a Springtime For Hitler-esque quality to it, so bad it apparently won critical acclaim from the Chelsea College of Arts.
The show meanders from topic to topic – one minute talking about how wonderful New Orleans is, for instance, and the next extolling the praises of Blackpool Football Club. And as Victoria says on more than one occasion, the narrative strays too far from death and funerals. That said, I rather liked caution having been thrown to the wind (productions of this nature, perhaps inevitably, remind people that ‘you only live once’), and the inclusion of some darker aspects of family life are both uncomfortable and brutally honest. Whether screw-ups are being revealed in a jovial or a scathing manner, it’s all very convincingly performed.
Productions are sometimes compared to icebergs, as what is visible to the naked eye is only a small fraction of the whole. Some points about the research undertaken for what became Ugly Chief take the audience below the surface, as is a seemingly hurried run through of all the things Victoria could have put in the show but didn’t. Let’s just say it would have been a very long evening if everything proposed was left in.
All things considered, this is a witty and spirited play, and I’d happily see it again. As for Mike Melody, he couldn’t help but spot this reviewer scribbling away into a notepad, and was confident enough to tell the press night audience I’d give him “all the stars”. How incredibly perceptive he is.
Review by Chris Omaweng
In 2013, Mike was diagnosed with a terminal illness so Victoria organised the funeral service of his dreams. A year later, doctors realised they had misdiagnosed Mike but they are going ahead with the funeral anyway…and you’re invited.
Join a real-life father and daughter duo for a living memorial like no other. Based on true events, Ugly Chief is a darkly comic look at the relationship between parents and their grown-up children, and what happens when they don’t see eye to eye…
During the performance, Mike Melody will run his own version of the Antiques Roadshow. Bring along your own heirlooms, curiosities and collectables for him to value!
Age Recommendation: 12+
Running Time: 2 hr including interval
31 Oct – 18 Nov 2017