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Kneehigh’s Ubu

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King Ubu is a boisterous creature that does not sit comfortably with the label of ‘theatre’ – it puts it’s feet up on the chair labelled ‘gig’ and loudly lays claim to both, refusing to sit still long enough to be analysed, but it can only really be described as an experience. It is mayhem, grabbing ingredients of karaoke, audience participation, pop-rock and dance off the shelf, shoving them all into a blender and pressing the ‘on’ switch, pausing only to add a sprinkle of weapons of mass destruction. What’s comes out is a thoroughly fun show that’s a long way from the sit-quietly-and-watch treatment you’d find in a more traditional production.

The plot runs thus; Mr Ubu and Mrs Ubu have arrived in the nation of Lovelyville, and waste no time in culturally ransacking the place and climbing the heap of confusion and anarchy to the very top, disposing of the President, his wife and strong-arming Captain Shittabrique into their service. The rise to power is an old narrative, but not like this; this production has already moved on to having the audience race each other across the floor while President Ubu takes a nap on a pile of pilfered coats. Going from the high energy but largely straight delivery of the opening to the outrageous clownery of the Ubus takes a little while to build up momentum, but that’s more down to it dawning on the audience what kind of show they’re in for. In their trouser suspenders, boots and wigs, and armed with pool noodles and toilet plungers, it’s as if the cast of Shooting Stars fronted a Sex Pistols tribute band.
The music component of this onslaught is provided by the sensational house band The Sweaty Bureaucrats, led by Nandi Bhebhe and Dom Coyote, who pump out an addictive medley of pop-rock loosely tied to the happenings on stage. Advertised as a singalong, the audience are encouraged to get involved with the lyrics, but that’s a minimum; you may find yourself sporting inflatable props, taking part in the team sports, or helping the magic bear make his way through the audience. This helps to whip the audience along, and the cheers, boos and laughter only grew stronger as time went on.
There is satire to be found if you look beyond the chaos, which is the point; there are comments on mob mentality, misdirection in politics, and how they keep getting away with it. The absurd Mr Ubu, played with unceasing energy by Katy Owen, wriggles away from any real responsibility associated with his office and distracts from confrontation, never letting his newfound power change who he is (which is, unfortunately, a conniving, greedy, cowardly little toe-rag). He and his spouse personify the worst auspices of those in power, and are there to be loathed and laughed at. But in the show there is punkish defiance against the establishment, against Ubu himself and the traditional trappings and barriers of theatre. The Marble Factory is decorated like an underground club you’d find in places like Camden, with graffiti daubed on the walls and standing room only, where people are encouraged to move freely and cheer loudly.
King Ubu is an experience like no other – a disruptive show of enjoyable pandemonium as Ubu and his wife tear through established convention without so much as a cursory glance at the consequences, where the parallels with modern political games are very deliberate. See it, enjoy it, and afterwards keep a wary eye on those in charge, because you might just see Ubu among them.