Kneehigh’s Ubu! – The Marble Factory (Bristol Old Vic) REVIEW

Ping pong fights, porangi politics and the pandemonium of participation performances, Kneehigh’s Ubu! has arrived in Bristol and it refuses to go unnoticed. 

From their unique characterisation to uncommon theatre etiquette, Kneehigh is as unconventional as ever. With the bar staying open during the performance, phone use encouraged and freedom granted to move around mid-show, all you think you know about being an audience member is challenged. 

The cast manage to settle you in by the beginning of Act 2 and you become accustomed to the mayhem and accept that anything goes. Literally anything. Magic bears, toilet brush sabers and DIY human hamster wheels…all are included. 

The stars of the show are the ever-grotesque Mr and Mrs Ubu. Katy Owen shines as the feebly insecure and manipulative Mr Ubu who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. She is joined by Mike Sheppard’s vulgar Mrs Ubu to create a couple that make you cringe with their pet names and gross demeanor. 

The setting of the Marble Factory/Motion was an asset to Kneehigh. They utilised the space well with different levels built for the band, lead by the stunning Nandi Bhebhe, and a circular stage which the actors primarily featured on to engage the audience. 

With this production being sold as “a singalong satire” you already had an audience that were willing to get involved and belt their hearts out to a corker of a playlist consisting of everything from John Lennon to Taylor Swift. 

The karaoke-style lyrics on screens around the room assisted the audience but were also utilised to display daft and lighthearted hashtags to drive home messages during more dark and sinister moments. 

Everyone will have a strong opinion about this piece (definitely a ‘Marmite show’) and probably their own unique interpretation of the story as well. 

What I personally took from the evening was simply the theme of ‘dictatorship equals bad’. I also enjoyed how Kneehigh used distraction and mob mentality to manipulate the audience. 

We were led into singing, dancing, fighting and competing. Being spoon-fed opinions on characters without a single objection from the audience. 

These messages are far from subtle yet still rather muddled. I left feeling I had witnessed something brilliant but not quite fully lived the experience as I was constantly questioning what I was missing. 

It’s also deliciously indulgent for the over-analytical members of the audience who can easily read into themes such as the reoccuring swirl icon which I interpreted as a representation of hypnotism by dictatorship. 

I also heard it summissed that this was more a logo for political campaign. Whatever your interpretation, it serves as an example of the many elements of the show which you will absorb differently from those stood next to you.

You can, however, do the exact opposite, and simply take the play at face value. It’s slapstick comedy often borders pantomime levels of hysteria but rarely fails to obtain a laugh from the audience. Politics and in-depth analysis aside, this evening is entertaining even on a surface level.

I just can’t put my finger on exactly why you leave feeling so good… Is it simply the originality and freshness that Kneehigh exudes and the witty humour from characters as they interact with the audience, or the feel-good sing-along which distracts from the dark and mind-exhausting questions of morality?

Whilst I can’t say for certain is that the songs mix well with political satire and comedic slapstick, I know that you will not have seen anything like it before. It is a bonkers evening that you won’t forget for a long time. 

If you want interesting, thought-provoking and niche, this is it. Kneehigh’s Ubu leaves your mind reeling and eager to debate the meaning behind the content. Whatever you think of it, isn’t that what good theatre is supposed to do? 

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