Kneehigh bill their promenade-style take on Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi as a “singalong satire.” But let’s call it what it is: Carl Grose and Mike Shepherd’s raucous production is more a theatre-tinged, alcohol-fuelled immersive dance party than an adaptation of Jarry’s satirical play.
On their way into Shoreditch Town Hall’s grand Victorian auditorium, members of the audience are handed wacky costumes, ribbon wands, and bog brushes. During the show, performers mingle and banter with them. People actually dance, actually sing, actually enjoy themselves. So far, so good. But this is also the kind of immersive show where unsuspecting spectator-cum-participants are beaten on the head with plastic rods, attacked in the eye by water pistols, dragged into ridiculous games, and have their handbags snatched from them.
All this, of course, is in good humour—it resembles an affably deranged birthday party. If you thought Nicholas Hytner went too far by forcing people to hold hands with strangers in his Midsummer, then Kneehigh’s no-holds-barred approach drives to the same conclusion, but this time strangers end up putting their arms around each other’s shoulders of their own accord.
Kneehigh want to recreate the riotous ambience of Ubu’s 1896 première in Paris by inciting their audience into a similar kind of cathartic uproar. Except now they are the ones orchestrating the mayhem. And it does work. Throughout the show’s 150-minute run I couldn’t resist the temptation to watch the audience as much as I watched the performers. Oh, the things I have seen: boomers throwing inflatable water toys at each other and dancing sensuously to Britney’s “Toxic” doesn’t even begin to cover it. People drink and shout and let go without hesitation. It is boisterous, impulsive, and entertaining. That it is designed to be that way doesn’t make it feel synthetic. It’s a genuinely fun night out.
Ubu! works best when it orchestrates the ‘sing-along’ promised by its title. The show both recharges itself and animates the audience when it launches into catchy songs, whose lyrics are projected like karaoke. The live band’s playlist is vast enough to bring together David Bowie, Sex Pistols, The Animals, Elvis Presley, Lionel Richie, Labi Siffre, John Lennon, and Taylor Swift. That’s some range. And the audience devours every single song with great appetite.
Kneehigh has clearly adapted Ubu! because they want to make a Political Point. In fact, the Point could not be more on the nose: autocracy = bad. It’s as basic as that, and the production offers little in the way of complicating or enriching this idea. To draw the parallels with the outside world, the audience is redundantly shown paper masks of world leaders and hashtags like #MakeLovelyvilleGreatAgain and #FakeNews.
Ubu’s ridiculous, devious rise from the sewers to the presidential palace of Lovelyville and his eventual downfall comprise the main arc of the show’s political parable. We all know this tale very well; so there’s really no discernible reason to further underline how it’s abundantly unfolding in more than one country right now. All the same, just as Jarry’s play parodies Macbeth, Kneehigh parodies Jarry’s own parody by stripping it down to its bare bones and throwing confetti on them. In terms of narrative and dialogue, what remains is not that interesting or funny, but it does serve as filling for the interstices of their musical extravaganza.
There is, however, a propulsive force behind this positively odd experience. And it has a lot to do with the ensemble’s angular, often cartoonish performances. Katy Owen brings her trademark hilarity to Mr Ubu, who becomes a doubly irreverent, naughty, anarchic force in her hands. As Mrs Ubu, co-director Mike Shepherd cuts an outrageous but digestible figure. Kyla Goodey slowly transforms Bobbi (whom the Ubus imprison after murdering her father the ex-president) into a major highlight of the evening; she is especially brilliant in a scene of interpretive dance that is straight out of a Sia music video. Both Robi Luckay’s Captain Shittabrique and Niall Ashdown’s Jeremy Wardle (the host) have a fine-tuned comic intensity that keeps things nicely down to earth. As the cast split their time between a raised circular platform and among the audience, their madcap choreography and hearty singing beget a dizzying string of grotesque moments.
Experiencing Ubu! is like being pulled at the sleeve by a tipsy clown with smudged makeup who wants to dance with you and talk politics. The conversation will be awkward at best, but it’s such a bizarre proposition that you’d be hard-pressed to say no. Just make sure you grab a drink. Or two.
Ubu! A Singalong Satire is on Shoreditch Town Hall till 21st December. More info here.