In 2013, artist and theatre-maker Victoria Melody’s father, Mike, was given a death sentence: he was diagnosed with a fatal illness, the kind where you decline with horrible speed and inevitability. His family planned his funeral; Victoria wrote his eulogy; then they all discovered that the doctors got it wrong. Mike was going to live.
Ugly Chief starts out as, essentially, theatrical recycling: Melody’s already done the work, so why not use it to make a show about death? Obviously there’s not a dearth of art about death – people coping with it or running from it, people becoming ghosts, people becoming memory – but I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything quite like Ugly Chief. It’s a living funeral, a celebration of life and of the things we cannot say about death, but it’s also so more than that.
Melody’s made Ugly Chief with her father, Mike, a confident, jovial antiques dealer from off the telly, who revels in being badly behaved. There’s a fair bit of theatre with ‘real people’ at the centre, and it often feels slightly awkward, exposing the joins in structured reality shows – but in the same way that Mike, within seconds of arriving on stage, mines the uncomfortable story of his near-death for humour, Melody leans in to the awkwardness, pushing the audience to watch fumbling half-acted versions of conversations that really took place – it feels uncomfortable at times, but you never doubt Melody is in control of that. It’s no surprise when she says she and her father share a sense of humour.
As we move from Mike’s story to his eulogy through a short film about Melody’s time training to be a funeral director, to better prepare herself for her father’s death (she later notes that this is a tellingly unhealthy reaction to grief), there’s a fair amount of reliance on devices, bits and sections. Melody retains a tight grip on all that we see, despite having someone ‘real’ at the centre of the show – but each section deepens understanding so quickly and simply as to earn their place. For instance, a section in which Mike, displeased with decisions Melody has made about the show, is appeased by doing some antique valuation, sounds contrived – but weirdly it somehow isn’t, and the show wouldn’t quite function without getting to see both of them in their professional element. It evens the playing field, somehow.
Ugly Chief is a show as much about life as death: how you fill a life; how you sum it up; the impossible task of distilling the memory of someone’s whole life into a funeral, and how we rarely even try; and what you lose when someone dies, which is to say the reality of a person – the bad with the good. It’s a difficult, painful, brilliant watch about the disappointments we have to learn to live with if we want to look, really look, at the people we love, because if we don’t really look, how will we remember them properly when they’re gone?
There’s so much depth and detail here, that what starts as a very ‘show’ show about performing Mike’s funeral unfurls to reveal a genuinely remarkable amount of thought – every decision you might question has already been questioned, everything you wonder has already been addressed, everything that feels under-addressed comes back. The stories about Melody’s childhood are carefully chosen, but real, and not always comfortable, and Ugly Chief deepens like a coastal shelf until it becomes something unforgettable.
It’s important not to say too much: Ugly Chief wants to surprise you, and must be allowed to. All you need to know is to go, if you can, because it is beautiful, and to have faith that every uncomfortable moment has purpose, and that it will resolve itself into something staggeringly beautiful, tackling huge, unimaginable subjects with warmth, grace and lightness of touch.
Ugly Chief is on at Battersea Arts Centre until 18th November. Book tickets here.