Kneehigh’s Ubu! A Singalong Satire
Shoreditch Town Hall
Reviewed – 6th December 2019
“unabashedly uncool, in turn giving credence to its audience to be the same”
Besides overly confident children who’ve yet to be beaten down by the world, I’m going out on a limb and stating confidently that I don’t think anyone actually likes audience participation. The performers come stalking through the crowd, “Can I have a volunteer?” and everyone promptly stares intensely at their shoes or, armed with a child, pushes them to the front, sacrificing them in their stead.
Despite this, somehow Kneehigh’s Ubu manages to succeed in whipping the entire audience in to a giddy frenzy, belting out Bowie and Britney alike, eagerly volunteering for team games, cheering and booing with immense gusto.
The plot, originally written by Alfred Jarry, and turned upside down and inside out for this production by Carl Grose, is nearly irrelevant, just something to hang the evening’s entertainment on: The land of Lovelyville is lovely, ruled over peacefully by President Nick Dallas (Dom Coyote) and his teenage daughter Bobbie Dallas (Kyla Goodey), that is until one day Mr and Mrs Ubu (Katy Owen, Mike Shepherd) climb their way out of the sewers and start wreaking havoc.
Performances are consistently silly and melodramatic, and costumes follow suit: Mop heads serve as hair, spring coils as breasts and dunce hats as crowns (created under the supervision of Megan Rarity). There is zero effort to suspend any disbelief- in fact, there’s an active push in the other direction. At one point, on presenting a long stick, Mrs Ubu states, “This is more than a stick, this is a genuine African blow dart. Suspend your disbelief is you don’t believe me.”
The whole evening feels like complete chaos: aside from the constant breaks into song, one side of the audience is called upon repeatedly to act as a zoo; our host for the evening, Jeremy Wardle (Niall Ashdown) keeps interrupting scenes to give yellow cards for bad language; at some point a bear shows up… Multiple times throughout, I find myself admitting I have absolutely no idea what’s going on, but it doesn’t matter. And in fact, the nonsensicalness of the show is perhaps what allows everyone to let go of any manners or restraint and really lean in to the madness. The bar is also open throughout the evening, which no doubt aids in the audience’s loosening up.
The band (The Sweaty Beaurocrats) remains on stage throughout, as does a giant toilet, taking centre-stage, providing a handy entrance or a humiliating exit. An additional promenade stage (designed by Bill Mitchell) allows the standing audience to crowd around, like a benign mob, singing on cue whenever words appear on one of three giant screens. There is seating, but most of the audience is stood throughout, eager to join in the ruckus.
Regardless of whether you can carry a tune, or whether you even know the words, there is something incredibly freeing about belting your heart out in a big crowd, arms around strangers, caring not a hair that you’ve somehow been turned into an audience participant. Kneehigh’s Ubu, as co-directed by Carl Grose and Mike Shepherd, is unabashedly uncool, in turn giving credence to its audience to be the same. This is exactly what a Christmas show should be. Overwhelmingly silly and senseless, and one of the best nights out in London this December.
Reviewed by Miriam Sallon
Photography by Steve Tanner
Kneehigh’s Ubu! A Singalong Satire
Shoreditch Town Hall until 21st December
Previously reviewed at this venue: