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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan
Pere Ubu with Gagarin and the Brothers Quay, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, April 25th, 2008.
This isn’t a concert. It’s a play, of sorts. It’s a performance. At times it seems like a bloody fiasco. But it’s David Thomas and Pere Ubu, and you can therefore be sure of one thing, it won’t lack interest, provocation or humour. What we’re watching is the second of two performances of Mr Thomas’ adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s controversial play, Ubu Roi, renamed ‘Bring me the head of Ubu Roi’. First performed in 1896 the play provoked uproar from its opening lines, “Merdre, Merdre”, onwards.
It was confrontational, absurd, and deeply funny (three words which might well apply, one could think, to the work of Mr Thomas, an admirer of Jarry from his youth). The absinthe-drinking Jarry, of course, was also the founder of the Pataphysics movement, dedicated to “the science of imaginary solutions’, whose devotees (in addition to Mr Thomas) include such luminaries as Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt. It is, of course, a piece of nonsense, just like this evening.
Alfred Jarry
Alfred Jarry
The performance ‘stars’ Thomas as Pere Ubu, and former Communards vocalist and noted jazz-singer Sarah Jane Morris as Mere Ubu, The band, and guest artist Gagarin, perform the remainder of the roles with greater or lesser degrees of competence. The performance is sprinkled with a number of songs ‘in the Pere Ubu style’, whilst Gagarin provides a richly-textured aural backdrop, a counter to the visual environment created by the Brothers Quay.
As for the plot – well, I guess it’s about greed and avarice with not a shred of redemption in sight, an uncomfortable mirror to stand up against nineteenth, and for that matter, twenty-first century polite society.
The stage is bare – the band are squeezed in on the right hand side, and whilst not performing Thomas and Morris lounge on chairs on the left. Thomas introduces each scene with a short narrative of what is about to unfold – an afterthought following the first night (which in Thomas’ words was also ‘a bit of a shambles’) when it became apparent that no one knew what was going on. He’s getting more and more like that grumpy and lovable old uncle who comes to stay at Christmas, gets drunk and generally disgraces himself, and scandalises your parents. His narrative voice, half exasperated, half bored (“so many pieces of paper, so little time” he sighs as he struggles to find the right sheet) sounds like a cross between W C Fields and Sylvester the Cat – I half expected him to come out with "Sufferin’ succotash!".
David Thomas
David Thomas
As Ubu he’s a grotesque in his now trademark raincoat (where is the whippet I wonder?). As he takes his position centre stage he’s accompanied by electronic squelches, squeaks and farts. And as the evening progresses it becomes apparent that he’s very fussy about his farts, stepping out of character (or is he?) to berate his band when they forget the farts, or use the wrong ones – “I want the fucking long farts. I told you fuckers the long farts. Long farts!”. These rages, a stratagem for covering up flaws or glitches in the performance, become more frequent, despairing and entertaining as the evening goes on, and as the tightly-knit spectacle slowly unwinds. Towards the end Thomas falls into his chair – “ I told them we’d never get this fucking right and you know what, everyone hates a know-it-all when he’s fucking right”.
Intermission Together Thomas and Morris manage to turn the menacing, plotting, untrusting and murderous Ubus into a slightly more sinister version of Roald Dahl’s The Twits. They’re dark, but never too dark (although certainly too dark to take photographs). It’s almost like pantomime without the ghastly television ‘celebrities’, a sort of Carry On Pataphysics, with a slightly unnerving edge created by the visuals and soundtrack.
And believe me, for all the mistakes it’s thoroughly engaging and compelling. I’m not sure what the audience expected, and was surprised that so many left at the interval – it’s David Thomas, what on earth did they expect? Even some of those who made it back couldn’t stick it to the end, to Thomas’s final jibe, “I spit on your applause”. A shame. I’ve rarely left a theatre feeling quite as entertained. Merdre! - Nick Morgan (intermission photograph by Kate)
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