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Posts Tagged ‘Niall Ashdown’

Kneehigh may just have the best party in town this season. The combination of storytelling, creative immersive staging and willing participation is irresistible.

They’ve set it on an election night when the sitting president gets a second term, but Ubu and Mrs Ubu turn up, stage a coup and the tyranny begins. When the Ubu’s fall out over his oppression, war ensues, then revolution. Written by Carl Grouse, co-directed by him and his fellow Kneehigh AD Mike Shepherd, and based on Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play, it’s all accompanied by a great selection of pop and rock songs, played by a superb live band, whose lyrics contribute to the story.

The participation isn’t in the slightest bit enforced or uncomfortable, partly because a party atmosphere is created as you arrive, and partly because of their ingenious ways of engaging the audience. We sing along like crowd karaoke, with surtitles to help us, there are games and battles and some audience members get inflatable animals to create a zoo! Host Jeremy Wardle, brilliantly played by Niall Ashdown, keeps it all on track, and Katy Owen and Mike Shepherd are terrific as Ubu and Mrs Ubu respectively.

The design aesthetic spares us Kneehigh’s trademark white Y-fronts, but instead we get collar & tie on white vests with braces. Mrs Ubu only needs her hat to come alive. There’s a giant loo which is put to great use, and we fall in love with the magic bear. It’s very funny, but with a bit of a satirical bite and an underlying message, and of course rather timely, but above all its huge good-hearted fun and another tonic to divert us from the madness. Don’t miss it !

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There are actually four Hans Christian Andersen tales adapted here. The rather sad Little Matchgirl bookends three lighter tales – Thumbelina, The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Princess and the Pea – two of which take up much more of the evening, a contrasting if odd combination.

Our narrator is Ole Shuteye and the five performers are collectively called Shuteyes (and the band The Swan Vestas!). The adaptations, by Emma Rice (who also directs) and Joel Horwood, have contemporary references, in particular in The Emperor’s New Clothes, where the weavers have become modern fashionistas and we get living designers name-checked and some Spice Girls music. Not all of this contemporary stuff works; it sometimes gets in the way of the magic of the fairy-tales and turns the show into posh panto for Waitrose customers, with Trump, Brexit and even cheating cricketers thrown in for good measure. It does work for the title tale though, where the contemporary spin involves war and homelessness.

Vicki Mortimer’s costumes are excellent and the original music by Stephen Warbeck, played by an onstage trio and one of the performers, is delightful. Niall Ashdown makes a cheeky and charming narrator as well as the gullible Emperor. Katy Owen and Guy Hughes were huge fun as the fashionistas and the latter made an excellent prince. Edie Edmundson’s puppet matchgirl melts your heart. It really does fit the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse like a glove.

There’s much to enjoy, but I do wish they’d reigned in the pantoesque stuff and concentrated on the magic of the fairy-tales, something Emma Rice does so well.

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