From the moment that the audience sets foot in the Quays Theatre, it’s clear that Kneehigh’s Ubu! will not be an ordinary night at the theatre. All the seats are removed to make space for a circular stage, pop up bars, and floor space for the audience to stand, dance and more.
It’s great to see the theatre packed with a really diverse and youthful audience, who embrace the singalong aspect of the show whole-heartedly, aided by subtitles on screens, and dance enthusiastically waving streamer sticks. Kneehigh definitely know how to provoke a party atmosphere.
This party is sound-tracked by Nandi Bhebhe and the Sweaty Bureaucrats who, not only play their way through a jukebox of crowd pleasers but, feature in the play’s action too. Dom Coyote both provides vocals and plays President Dallas, while Bhebhe herself performs two excellent high energy dance solos.
The show is Kneehigh’s take on Ubu Roi, an 1896 satire by Alfred Jarry, and its timeliness for our own era of personality politics is referenced constantly throughout. Beginning with an election in Lovelyville, we witness the rise of Mr Ubu – a clownish, babbling sociopath with a mop head for hair – aided by his conical bra-wearing wife, the real brain behind their schemes. The gender-flipped casting of the lead roles adds an extra pantomime quality to proceedings, but Katy Owen’s twitchy, squirmy physicality makes Mr Ubu convincingly repellent.
The Ubus’ political tactics are recognisable, too – distracting attention from their lack of policies by answering questions with song lyrics, and putting on the ‘Ubu Olympics,’ a series of physical challenges undertaken by volunteer audience members.
Guiding us through the mayhem is host, Jeremy Wardle (Niall Ashdown) – a Jonathan Oliver-esque voice of reason, commenting on events with cutting sarcasm and frequently calling the Ubus out for their more offensive remarks. References to Johnson, Trump and Piers Morgan – the Ubus of our own age – abound.
Our current times really are ripe for this play. The audience is forced to take an active part in the action, cheering Mr Ubu, turning on each other and then finally rallying together to bring him down – a surreal imitation of the mechanisms of politics.
Terrible events are painted so absurdly that they become funny, backed by ironic song choices – you’ll never hear ‘Close to You’ by The Carpenters in the same way again.
Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something even sillier comes along: from water pistols, giant beach balls and magic bears, to ping pong ball warfare and characters riding inflatable dolphins. Yes, Ubu is weird, but it’s such a joyful and inclusive riot that it could pull even the most unwilling observer on board and have them grinning by the end.★ ★ ★ ★
Kneehigh: Ubu! A Singalong Satire is at The Lowry, Salford Quays from 28 January to 1 February 2020.