Ubu!

Carl Grose, adapted from the original by Alfred Jarry
Kneehigh in association with Bristol Old Vic
The Marble Factory, Bristol
to

Kneehigh’s Ubu!, now playing at the Marble Factory, Bristol, is a riot, but not the sort that Alfred Jarry could have imagined in 1896.

Billed as a ‘singalong satire’, Kneehigh throw the works at this dark political satire. Known for their physical and raucous style of theatre making, the group add their own brand of energy and chaos to the anarchy of Ubu’s dictatorship.

Kneehigh tells us the story of Ubu’s rise and fall as a musical, but one in which the audience happily sing-a-long to tunes as events unfold. Karoke-style, words of the songs are displayed around the main performance area. In this case, Kneehigh has taken over a nightclub in a disused warehouse behind Bristol’s Temple Meads station. While the cracking band (Nandi Bhebe and The Sweaty Bureaucrats) play at full blast, we are free to stroll around, go upstairs to the balconies, lean against the walls or our neighbours—and, true karaoke-style, even keep going to the bar. The enthusiasm is infectious. Fill your lungs and belt out some of pop’s most iconic tunes: Spandau Ballet’s "Gold!", Bowie’s "Heroes", Britney Spears’s "Toxic", Bill Withers’s "Lovely Day", Lou Reed’s "Perfect Day" and more.

The grotesque couple at the centre of events, Ubu (played by Katy Owen) and his wife (played by Mike Shepherd, also Kneehigh’s founder), enter through a toilet backstage, waving plungers and toilet brushes while the band play the Sex Pistols’ "Anarchy in the UK", of course. The tiny Owen and the cross-dressed Shepherd superbly play up the couple’s unashamed vulgarity to pantomime levels. Their greed, cruelty and self-serving actions are on full display. Yet when the audience is called on to judge them for what they are, the demagogic pair play to the crowd’s suggestibility and our impulsive response for sympathy.

Famously closed upon opening because of its vulgar behaviour, language and because of its controversial parody of the ‘everyman’ which offended the audience, Jarry’s intentions are skilfully played out here. When called on to judge on what we know is not authentic, we would rather leave our critical faculties at the door, let the good times roll, have another song and keep the party going. It’s a ploy that has been going before the Caesars distracted their citizens with amphitheatre games and the analogies with today’s fake news can’t be ignored.

Ultimately, as the couple’s power gets out of control, the stakes get higher and the audience need bigger distractions. Participative team games with cash prizes on the nightclub floor involving the whole audience become a raucous affair. Next, they stage the Olympic Games. Ultimately, tensions between rival power factions result in a version of "War" (Frankie Goes to Hollywood, what else?) played out with different parts of the audience throwing table tennis or giant balls across the warehouse area.

By involving the audience in this irreverent, chaotic and extraordinarily fun version of Ubu Roi, Kneehigh turns up the state of anarchy to number 11. Jarry’s satire on mob rule is a perfect choice for writer and co-director Carl Grose to adapt for Kneehigh’s original form of theatre. However, the underlying satire and political warnings are dangerously close to being diluted away by the party and pandemonium around you. If you are not aware of the original you may miss the significance of much of the evening and it can feel too much like a long karaoke event which puts at risk the weight of the satirical punch it might have had.

Reviewer: Joan Phillips