Review & Q&A: Kneehigh’s Ubu! A Singalong Satire
★★★½ Kneehigh return to Shoreditch Town Hall with a lively reimagining of Alfred Jarry’s groundbreaking provocation.
The last time we saw a Kneehigh show at Shoreditch Town Hall, Dead Dog In A Suitcase – an inspired an incendiary take on John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera – absolutely blew us away.
So our expectations were (perhaps unfairly) high for this latest work, a timely update on Jarry’s ‘Ubu Roi’ which very much suits our current political climate. Perhaps our only concern was the promise of satire at a time when real-life almost seems to beyond the reach of such treatment.
To a certain extent this fear was unfounded, mostly because the satire in Ubu! deals with universal themes. References to Trump & BoJo are thrown in – with predictably (and reassuringly) noisy responses from the audience – but for the most part, Kneehigh have chosen to float Ubu! adrift from specifics.
The bigger hurdle turned out to be the singalong element – a hurdle cleared, just about, but leaving room for improvement. The concept is good, an attempt to recreate the football stadium atmosphere where supporters can get involved in the action and leave energised, or at least having played their part.
The jukebox song choices hit the mark more often than not – things really get going early on with a burst of Spandau Ballet’s Gold, and there’s a euphoric edge to the closing rendition of Perfect Day. Three screens display the lyrics so that no-one has an excuse not to join in, but there’s still a noticeable dip in enthusiasm for some of the less well-known choices. The audience is also occasionally thrown by some changed lyrics, or by songs that they’re not meant to join in with (or continue), so the sought-for organic feeling of an audience-chorus is a little strained.
That leaves the story itself, which – gimmicks aside – is a familiar yet exuberantly performed Punch & Judy twist on Macbeth & Hamlet. Katy Owen and Mike Shepherd are excellent as Mr & Mrs Ubu, the latter encouraging her husband to usurp the incumbent President Nick Dallas and, backed up by henchman Captain Shittabrique (Robbi Luckay), bring populist dictatorship to the masses.
There are plenty of laughs, and things tick along at a fair lick, but at two and half hours (including two short intervals), a lot is expected of a mostly standing audience. There’s an Olympics segment which adds nothing to the story except 10 minutes or so, and not a whole lot of promenading for what is billed as a promenade performance.
Nevertheless, there’s an infectious energy which fuels performers and audience alike and, undeniably, there’s a buzzy, enthusiastic atmosphere as things draw to a close. It’s hard to escape the feeling that the thrills will fade away pretty quickly, but while they last Ubu! just about fulfils its brief.
Quickfire Q&A with Kneehigh’s Mike Shepherd
Tell us about Ubu – what should audiences expect?
Expect to be entertained-expect the unexpected-don’t expect anything just come with an open heart and mind. One thing is for sure you won’t be bored, and you won’t quite believe what’s happening! But expect a good night out and one you won’t forget.
We’re big fans of Kneehigh – but how would you describe Kneehigh to newbies?
Come along and find out ! The work is contemporary, inventive, outrageous, enticing, funky and VERY ALIVE! We basically try to have a good time and in that way the audience does too.
Who are your inspirations, in art and life?
Pina Bausch, David Byrne, Buster Keaton, David Lynch, Roy Andersson, Emir Kusterica, Barack Obama, and Joan Littlewood.
Is our political reality in danger of going beyond the reach of satire?
To be honest I am far too troubled to joke or even talk about politics.
Something more cheery: What’s your favourite Christmas song?
At the risk of sounding like the Grinch I hate all Christmas songs – I listen to Khacaturian or Nick Cave at Christmas.
What are your favourite London haunts?
London is such a special city, I love to wander the canals by day and Soho at night.
I am Joint Editor at To Do List. I like: nice pubs, film marathons, not doing real marathons, bad comedy, plays/musicals with shorter second halves, and the Oxford comma.