Pantomime season may be rolling to a close, but a new decade starts with a bang with Kneehigh’s Ubu! A Singalong Satire, pushing audience interaction to another level entirely. There is no ‘he’s behind you’ here, instead, the audience is expected to give the full-blooded belt to a range of karaoke classics. Indeed, we are having too much of a good time to be paying much attention to the bloody power plays that sends Mr Ubu and his wife Mrs Ubu to the top of the food chain. When the world is going to hell in a handcart, we might as well party to wade off the impending catastrophe. Sound familiar?
Kneehigh has always managed to make theatre feel populist; like a proper rollicking alternative to the latest Marvel blockbuster, or Champions League tie; the international sensations who have run further than anyone in modern drama to hark back to the tenets of John McGrath or Joan Littlewood. Yet, within oodles of fun, the serious point lies just underneath the surface. It is in the admonishment of the audience of how easily they are prepared to go to war, one side against another, with no real idea why they are spraying artillery fire against those who minutes earlier they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with. It is there in its closing moments when an audience in unison point their fingers and sing Lou Read’s haunting lyrics ‘You’re Going to reap what you sow’ and absolve their sins in an instance of pack mentality. In an era where more and more of us want to take responsibility for the future well being of our planet, it is a stern reminder that it does not take much for us to fall happily back into the pack. There is an intellectual rigorousness constantly prodding beneath the fun.
Carl Grose has provided an adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu trilogy that so scandalised the theatre community at the tail end of the 19th century. It inevitably perhaps cannot produce the depth of feeling that the original did, which incited its audience to riot, but it manages to stay fairly faithful to the original in its use of the scatological obsessed Ubu’s, who find ever-increasing metaphors to describe their genitals and appear to blunder their way to power before in-fighting and vanity soon sees the downfall of these power-obsessed megalomaniacs. As the programme notes observe, any reference to those currently in power is very much intentional. One can only hope that those who currently hold the top offices find themselves similarly the cause of their downfall.
As Mr Ubu, Katy Owens is a mass of blonde mop and wiry self-importance, puffed up to the max with a toxic masculinity. Owens’ has been a true standout over the past few years, most recently in Emma Rice’s Wise Children and it is terrific to see her hold the stage as she does here. Her Welsh inflexion gives a lyricalness to all that she delivers, even as she up’s the ante in a desperate attempt to hold the crown. Her version of My Way descends into a punk rejection of learning any lessons from history; a legacy that Jarry predicted and saw come to pass with the likes of Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and Ceausescu burn and slaughter their way through the 20th century. As his wife, Mike Shepherd (who also co-directs with Grose) finds a playful and then touching vein as the women who finds her agency ignored for too long.
The songs range from the aforementioned Reid to Britney Spears, Elton John to The Sex Pistols with a bit of Pharrell Williams to boot. Led by the brilliant Nendi Bhebhe and the house band The Sweaty Bureaucrats it’s a playlist designed to play well for an up for it Friday night crowd. Admittedly the whole evening loses a bit of momentum in a show that could do with a 20 minute trim and sometimes it does fall into a bit of self-indulgence but that is par for the course with a Kneehigh piece and can be easily forgiven in a night that provides terrific entertainment. In the long, dull January stretch, Kneehigh will take you straight to hell in the most rollicking of ways.