Saturday, 11 January 2020

Kneehigh's Ubu!

Terrible photos by me - sorry about that.
Ooh, the splendid Kneehigh Theatre Company is back in Bristol. And, as you’d expect, they are doing the unexpected. Although a Bristol Old Vic production, Kneehigh's Ubu! is being staged a mile or so away at the Marble Factory on Avon Street, which is more usually a nightclub and live music venue. As such, there is no official seating and the audience is free to wander around the auditorium, keep their phones in their hands, and sing along as loudly as their hearts desire. This is not your standard theatre show. 

Billed as an improvised promenade musical, Kneeigh’s Ubu! is a reinterpretation of the Alfred Jarry farce from the 1890s that stuck two fingers up to the government and incites a revolution in its audience. What could be more Kneehigh? Carl Grose has taken over the script and shares directing duties with Mike Shepherd, who also stars as a delicious Mrs Ubu.

Undisguisedly, Kneehigh's Ubu! is a poke at the atrocities rained down upon society when a narcissistic, unkind and selfish individual pushes their way to power (unelected) and then systematically undoes all the good that has been built up by some of their predecessors. Nobody is going to win any points for spotting that one. Especially given it is literally shown to us via a dance where the cast hold up masks of faces including Adolf Hitler, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. 

If only Johnson, Trump and co would see Kneehigh’s Ubu!, though. Not that they would recognise themselves in it immediately, but it might start to chip away at the back of their minds about the damage they are doing to the people they claim to represent. The anger and hostility and gleeful incitement to riot among the audience in response to these despots was palpable. 

Image from Bristol Old Vic website

Kneehigh’s Ubu! is an interactive celebration of humanity, though. Billed as a singalong performance, while nobody is going to make you singalong, they will also wonder why you came if you don’t. There is plenty of audience participation - including, delightfully, a mini Olympic Games. There is even a war: one that is started with a whistle and where both sides are given an equal number of weapons, just like in real life. More than anything, there are songs - loads and loads of songs. You will know them all. You will want to sing along with them all. And the lyrics are handily provided on the big screens for when you forget some of the words. Because even though the world is going to hell in a handcart, we might as well enjoy ourselves while we can. 

There is an impressive cast behind Kneehigh’s Ubu! Mike Sherpherd I have already mentioned, and his counterpart - the repulsive King Ubu himself - is played with utter glee by Katy Owen, who Kneehigh fans will instantly recognise. Dom Coyote is a standout performer, as both President Nick Dallas and a very talented singer with house band The Sweaty Bureaucrats (and here also, a hefty head nod to Nandi Bhebhe, whose singing and dancing is simply extraordinary: a real joy to watch and listen to).

We are guided through the evening by Jeremy Wardle (played by Niall Ashdown) who does a sterling job at keeping the cast in check, bringing the audience in and reminding us what the absolute hell is going on. Oh, and of course he sings. Everyone sings.

It’s fun seeing Bristol Old Vic take productions outside the conventional theatre space, and the old stone walls and industrial metalwork of the Marble Factory lends itself well to a production such as Kneehigh’s Ubu!. (Just be warned, there is no tap water at the bar and bottled water is an eye-watering £3 (!) so bring your own water bottle with you so you neither get fleeced for water nor contribute to single use plastic pollution.) 

Kneehigh’s Ubu! is performed at the Marble Factory until January 25 but, be warned, several dates are already sold out. So click here for more information and to book your tickets. After Bristol, it continues to Salford and Leeds.

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