Kneehigh’s Ubu!, Shoreditch Town Hall

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Review by Ellie Panton

Imagine that someone took pictures of every relevant political cartoon of the last two years or so and put them through an algorithm that blends faces together, then sprinkled in a few of those ‘kids these days on their phones’ newspaper comics for good measure. Now, imagine that they somehow distilled the essence of this image into a Christmas Panto, messed with the staging a bit, and hosted it at a karaoke bar. 

That’s Kneehigh’s Ubu. Sadly, it’s less absurd than you would expect. 

That isn’t to say it’s not chaotic, or vulgar, or even dramaturgically quirky. The problem is this: it’s all a little too tame for what it sets out to be. Most of us have seen squirt-guns and actors running through the audience before. Those of us who grew up with the internet stumble upon profanity and nonsense so casually that the dialogue in this show seems normal by comparison. The titular character coming out of a giant toilet and devouring a rat is fun, but honestly? I’ve seen much worse on Youtube at age twelve. 

I’m getting ahead of myself. To explain, this show is an adaptation of Ubu Roi: A French play about a vulgar, lying despot who rises to power through underhanded means. One would assume that a modern reworking of this play would be a biting satire of current affairs. And, in some ways, it is! But I found myself wishing that it wasn’t quite so eager to please its liberal, theatre-going, sing-along seeking target demographic. 

There was one tantalising moment where I thought that this might have been intentional, when Mrs. Ubu announces a plan to distract the populace from her husband’s various wrongdoings: interactive games that pit the audience against each other. The games are a successful distraction, and there’s real promise in the symbolism and implications of this moment. Unfortunately, it feels like there’s no payoff for this idea, as the audience is never criticised for being so easily led. 

The show loves to point its large, clownish finger at certain real-world figures, then back at Ubu, then nudge the audience with its metaphorical elbow, saying “Eh? Eh?”. However, the main character and his wife speak and act more like a Punch and Judy skit than anyone with the socio-economic privilege to be in significant political power right now. There were a few moments where the comparison was successful, however, such as the delightfully maddening tendency for Ubu to get away with anything and everything with barefaced lies. 

The programme for Kneehigh’s Ubu boasts that the first production of Ubu Roi sparked a riot in those who witnessed it. To Kneehigh’s credit, there were small glimmers of that original reception in the audience I was with. Of course, we chose to channel that energy into gleefully derailing parts of the show for our amusement. How very ‘Boaty McBoatface’ of us. 

All in all, the show feels more like a therapy session for a dissatisfied populace than anything especially challenging or insightful. But maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe that’s what we need right now: the opportunity to vent our political frustrations as part a rowdy, singing mob. 

I’d like to commend Kneehigh and the venue for the measures they took regarding the accessibility of this show. The basket of free earplugs at the bar and the option to request a seat with a back did not go unnoticed. I will also use this diversion to comment on the strength of the show’s visual aesthetic: It’s unique, strangely appealing, and it fits the tone perfectly. 

If you’re intrigued and want to see it for yourself, here’s my advice: bring a few friends, have a few drinks, don’t think about it too much at the time, then argue loudly about the finer points of the play on the way home. Who knows? Perhaps, in true political fashion, you’ll thoroughly disagree with all of my opinions. I went to see it alone, sober (mostly), and with the intent to write a review of it, and I think that my experience suffered as a result. Because ultimately, your biggest takeaway from Kneehigh’s Ubu should be that it was really good fun. 

Showing at Shoreditch Town Hall in London from Wednesday the 4th to Saturday the 21st of December, then touring. ‘kneehigh.co.uk’ for more details.

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