Review: Ubu! A Singalong Satire (Shoreditch Town Hall)

Kneehigh’s promenade production runs in east London

Ubu! A Singalong Satire
Ubu! A Singalong Satire
© Steve Tanner

You'd need a pretty massive canvas for the broad brushstrokes of Kneehigh's newest show Ubu! A Singalong Satire. Loosely exploring the way that malicious leaders can be sanitised to a point of buffoonery, the piece mixes musical mayhem with some attempts at social commentary in an often interesting yet flawed manner.

For the most part, the lofty Shoreditch Town Hall (where the show has its London premiere ahead of further tour dates in 2020) is a canvas able to house the excesses of the production. Audiences lean on Michael Vale's bleachers or wander around the auditorium floor while the cast run and dance amok – telling Ubu's tale of political upheaval and turmoil. Inflatable objects are thrown, catchy tunes are played by an adept band (led by the effervescent Nandi Bhebhe) and a general anarchic vibe is quickly instilled.

Based on Alfred Jarry's famously provocative 1896 play, the story begins with a homeless couple – the Ubus (Katy Owen and Mike Shepherd) who wash up in the town of Lovelyville. Quickly usurping the natural order, Mr Ubu (Owen, a spritely fascist of a figure dwarfed by her towering wife Shepherd) rules with a disordered despotism, imprisoning dissenting inhabitants and demanding spontaneous taxes from all.

But Kneehigh replaces Jarry's sharp-edged satire with a softened whimsy – politicians are shot by stupendously oversized blowdarts, the Ubus have a bust-up with inflatable boxing gloves: tyranny is trivialised. At one point the cast swan out onto the stage sporting masks of Mussolini, Hitler, Trump, Johnson – easy political point-making without the necessary nuance to show just how susceptible the established order is to authoritarian rule.

There are some lovely caricatures that litter the promenade stage – Niall Ashdown has a blast interacting with the audience as The Host, while Robbi Luckay goes from misled military man to rebel-in-chief as the unfortunately named Captain Shittabrique.

What gives the show its novel edge is the karaoke aspect – boards beam down lyrics as pop classics blare out, with the audiences encouraged to sing along. Most do (and the two bars in-situ definitely help ease you into a vocal mood) and it is a neat way to unite the audience in song – but whether or not it fully gels with the political element of the production is less convincing.

It's hard to shake the feeling that a tight, bright 70-minute site-specific fringe show is waiting to burst out of the two-and-a-half experience. For all its fun and some garishly good performances (making it a not uninteresting evening), Ubu! often fails to hit the right note.