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Review: Kneehigh’s Ubu! A Singalong Satire

Review: Kneehigh’s Ubu! A Singalong Satire

Review: Kneehigh’s Ubu! A Singalong Satire cover photo on Stagedoor
Last in London with the exuberant and pin-sharp 'Dead Dog in a Suitcase', inspired by John Gay’s the Beggars Opera, the ever-inventive Kneehigh once again look to the past to illuminate the present.

It’s done with a trademark mix of direct audience engagement, slapstick and music. It is impossible not to feel included in a Kneehigh show because the company treat its audience with real generosity.

Kneehigh’s Ubu! A Singalong Satire (Shoreditch Town Hall) relocates Alfred Jarry’s scatological 1896 satire to the land of Lovelyville where president Nick Dallas (Dom Coyote) has recently been re-elected. But soon he’s being flushed down the toilet by new arrival the mop-haired Mr Ubu (Katy Owen, sadly not audible on the night I saw) and his monstrously ambitious wife (Mike Shepherd) who illegally seize power and take control. Although run riot might be a better way to describe their tyrannous rule.

Photos by Steve Tanner.

It’s all good knockabout stuff and like other shows in London this festive season, including Not Too Tame’s Cinderella at The Vaults, it uses singalong and offers a very different audience dynamic. During Ubu the bar stays open throughout, and there are no seats in the performance area (although you can retreat to the balcony above, although I recommend embracing the mayhem even if two and a half hours is a long time to stand) so the audience is in the thick of the action, either right in the playing area where our host Jeremy Wardle (Niall Ashdown) directs proceedings or on platformed terraces that surround it.

Highlights include two segments of the audience at war with each other using ping pong balls and giant beachballs, and getting to voice the plastic flamingos and crocodiles in the zoo where Dallas’s daughter, Bobbi (Kyla Goodey) has been put behind bars. But the master stroke is the way that musical director Charles Hazlewood has woven in familiar hits from Britney Spears’ Toxic to Edwin Starr’s War to push the action along and get the audience singing with gusto. There is a brilliant moment when The Carpenters’ Close to You accompanies an assassination.

This is definitely not subtle, but it is quite good fun, even if it doesn’t quite address the fact that a group of people can be both a mob and a community. It has some longueurs: the first act is baggy and needs to get a move on and its targets—Trump, Farage and Piers Morgan—are way too easy. It’s never quite savage enough, and nothing ever feels genuinely at stake, which seems a significant failing in election week when so much really is at stake. As an audience you are put in the odd position of obviously wanting to boo the Ubus but also finding them the most interesting people on stage. When Mrs Ubu goes down the pan the cheers have a regretful edge.

But the band, The Sweaty Bureaucrats, led by the impressive Nandi Bhebhe, are really terrific and if you are looking for a different night out this definitely fits the bill as long as you accept that what’s on offer is more ridicule than savage satire.

Kneehigh’s Ubu! A Singalong Satire runs at Shoreditch Town Hall until Sat 21 Dec.

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Written by

Lyn Gardner

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