Review: Kneehigh’s Ubu! A Singalong Satire, Leeds Playhouse

Kneehigh’s Ubu! A Singalong Satire is by far Kneehigh’s most eclectic, chaotic, and ridiculous production to date. Audiences can generally rely on the Cornwall based company for storytelling which is unpredictable and original. Ultimately, this is a production which, despite its admirably bold artistic ambitions, marks a signature departure from their consistently impressive previous work.

The show takes inspiration from Ubu Roi, Alfred Jarry’s story about the rise of the Ubu, a tyrannical despot who rules with an iron first. Kneehigh’s take on this story begins in a town called Lovelyville. We see events spiral out of control when Mr and Mrs Ubu (played by Katy Owen and Kneehigh’s Artistic Director Mike Shepherd, respectively, in an interesting gender swap) arrive and decide to assassinate the incumbent leader Nick (Dom Coyote) – a bumbling caricature of uninspiring, humourless career politicians. Mr and Mrs Ubu are cruel, brutal and care only for harnessing more power. James Wardle (played by Niall Ashdown) is the game show host who takes us through these series of events with a sarcastic commentary. He provides a disclaimer in his opening discourse, claiming that although audience members are entitled to sing, it’s not necessary. He then states not singing in a show that has ‘singalong’ in its title ultimately defeats the point in coming.

This remark speaks to a wider point about the show. If you’re not in the mood for anarchy and have no desire to submit to the madness that lies ahead in front of you on stage, then this definitely isn’t the show for you. In the programme notes, members of the creative team discuss their intention to break the silent contract in traditional theatre space, namely that which demands the audience to stay silent and passive, in the face of the art in front of them. One of the merits of this production is the fact that rather than staying silent, the audience are active participants and the show relies on their engagement. Songs are popular and the audience roar along, with a screen at the top of the stage helpfully displaying lyrics. The energy is palpable and exciting. At certain points, the audience are invited to participate in games and play as teams opposing each other, mirroring certain twist and turns in the plot. The production is undoubtedly an exciting visual feast with an elaborate set (designed by Michael Vale) enabling different layers of action to happen simultaneously and offering a strong canvas for the unpredictability of the plot. A house band, The Sweaty Bureaucrats, sit at the back of the stage throughout, and perform a number of songs throughout the evening.

Whilst the intention is honourable and the artistic vision is bold, it is executed poorly. The jokes of Mr and Mrs Ubu are mostly facetious and lewd, but go down well with the highly engaged audience. Whilst the Ubu in Jarry’s source material is described as a notorious, cruel and cowardly tyrant, in this production, the sense of menace is completely absent. He is, at best, a pantomime figure. It has significant implications because it means the references and connections the company are trying to make to modern day political leaders fall noticeably flat. Possibly the only character on stage for whom one can feel sympathy towards is Bobbie (played by Kyla Goodey), the downtrodden daughter of Nick. Most of the characters only seem to have comic purposes (a case in point is the character Shittabrique, where the mere mention of his name invokes laughter). The characters are ultimately one dimensional, and lacking in the care and attention previously afforded to characters in Kneehigh productions such as The Tin Drum. The story of corrupt leaders and a political system spiralling out of control is treated with an excessive levity that borders on carelessness.

This is an ultimate crowdpleaser. Filled with riotous laughers, booming music, it’s a fantastic night out. Insofar as one can talk about other values such as storytelling and plot, it simply fails to live up to its promises.

Kneehigh’s Ubu – A Singalong Satire is playing at Leeds Playhouse until 8 February, 2020. For more information visit Kneehigh’s Website.