Kneehigh's Ubu

Carl Grose, adapted from the original by Alfred Jarry
The Lowry, Salford

Katy Owen as Mr Ubu on the back of Mike Shepherd as Mrs Ubu Credit: Steve Tanner
Katy Owen as Mr Ubu Credit: Steve Tanner
Mike Shepherd as Mrs Ubu Credit: Steve Tanner
Dom Coyote Credit: Steve Tanner
Delycia Belgrave Credit: Steve Tanner
Renell Shaw Credit: Steve Tanner
Katy Owen as Mr Ubu and Mike Shepherd as Mrs Ubu Credit: Steve Tanner
Katy Owen as Mr Ubu Credit: Steve Tanner

It seems like the perfect marriage: Kneehigh, the real masters of what Peter Brook termed 'rough theatre', with Jarry's proto-surrealist, anarchic satire on the abuse of power by the vulgar and the inept, which is said to have caused a riot at its Paris debut in 1896, staged as a giant karaoke party. It sounds good as a concept, and it's a huge amount of fun in practice.

Kneehigh has reunited the creative team behind, amongst others, Dead Dog in a Suitcase (director Mike Shepherd, music director Charles Hazlewood and writer Carl Grose, who co-directs—I spoke to the first two of these for the BTG podcast), with which it shares some ideas: an amoral leading character who exploits others and flouts the law for personal gain. However, unlike Macheath, Ubu has no attractive qualities to give him the label 'antihero'—there is nothing heroic about him at all.

Grose keeps much of Jarry's original, which combined elements of Macbeth (a returning soldier, Ubu, encouraged by his wife, plots to murder the President, Nick Dallas, and take his place), Hamlet (the dead President returns as a ghost in a dream to tell his daughter Bobbi to avenge his murder) and others—there's even an “exit, pursued by a bear”, although the bear has an issue with stairs that slows him down. However, there is a childish glee with which these atrocities are carried out at a level that we don't generally see in a Shakespearean villain, and that surely couldn't be present in any of our current world leaders.

The evening is overseen by host Jeremy Wardle, who fills us in on the story, instructs us for the parts of the show where the audience gets involved (it isn't compulsory—don't panic) and issues warnings to the Ubus when they go a bit too far, to which they respond like scolded young children with the outward appearance of shame. There are three acts separated not by intervals but, Wardle tells us, by 'breathers' of five minutes or so. Like in the renaissance theatre, the audience stands, packed in tightly where the stalls seats usually are but free to move around the three sides of a thrust stage with the house band on a platform behind.

The first act sets up the story of the overthrow of the President, who willingly promotes his future usurper over the head of his (Russian) security advisor Captain Shittabrique (with the emphasis on the second syllable, which Ubu never gets right). The second act involves some games between willing participants from the audience including a war between supporters of Mr and Mrs Ubu, and the audience is hit with an Enjoyment Tax, which involves the Ubus stealing bags and clothing from audience members.

Throughout, popular songs from the 'sixties to present day are integrated into the plot, for which the words appear on screens for us all to join in. Song lyrics also form part of the script, especially for the political speeches. Audience participation often distracts from what the action; this is occasionally an issue to some extent, but this is largely avoided by having little of consequence happening during a song.

At the heart of the production are Mr and Mrs Ubu, played with gender reversal by Katy Owens and Kneehigh founder Mike Shepherd. Shepherd as always gives a wild, often comic performance of his grotesque characterisation of Mrs U, but the remarkable Owen takes this to a whole other level. Her performance of Mr Ubu seems to encapsulate a whole history of clowning and physical comedy into a character that is at once childishly vulnerable and shockingly callous, ending with a rendition of “My Way” that goes from Sinatra to Sid Vicious via every karaoke performer ever.

Niall Ashdown, a regular improvisor with the Comedy Store Players, holds the potentially unpredictable proceedings together as Wardle with a great deal of humour and charisma. Dom Coyote portrays the 'nice' politician who says all the right things to endear him to his audience as well as forming part of the house band (the Sweaty Bureaucrats) along with Alex Lupo, Justin Lee Radford, Renell Shaw and singer Delycia Belgrave. Kyla Goodey is the privileged daughter of the President, Bobbi, who begins blissfully ignorant of real life but is then spurred into revenge by her father's death. As Captain Shittabrique, Adam Sopp only joined the company this week but you would never know from a very accomplished performance.

This is both vintage Kneehigh and a natural progression from what they have done before. As a political satire, this show isn't going to change the world or even tell us anything we don't know already. Even many of those who voted for them know that some of our countries are run by childish, morally bankrupt leaders who care nothing for anyone but themselves and, to a lesser extent, others who look, sound and have a similar level of wealth to them. But being in a very mixed company, from parties of schoolchildren to the middle-aged like me and older, all laughing and booing at caricatures of our leaders and singing and playing together isn't a bad way to spend an evening. Hugely enjoyable.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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