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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan

The ICA, London, September 25th 2009
Pere Ubu
'The genuine Père Ubu'
by Alfred Jarry
Merdre! It’s Carry on Pataphysics – again. Pere Ubu have just released Long Live Pere Ubu, the CD of David Thomas’s adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, Bring me the Head of Ubu Roi, which eagle-eyed readers will recall being premiered at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall last year. It was one of the most entertaining nights of 2008. Thomas and his band are on the road to promote the disc. Vocalist Sarah Jane Morris should be with them, but is indisposed, her physical presence as Mere Ubu being taken by a rather unflattering assembly of cardboard boxes on the left of the stage. Her part is sung and spoken by Mr Thomas (“I knew it was a fucking mistake …” he confides in the audience at the end of the show). Projected on the rear of the stage are the animations produced for the film by the Brothers Quay.
Also on stage, “providing gagarin atmospheres and more” is digital sculptor Gagarin (aka Dids); actually he’s mostly responsible for the constant background of flushing toilets, overworked digestive systems, belches and farts, lots of farts (“Where are the farts? Turn up the fucking farts. My people need to hear the farts”).
David Thomas
We’re close up to the stage in the small theatre (I imagine it’s called a performance space) at the hopelessly hip ICA, in the basement of the Eastern section of Carlton House Terrace, facing onto the Mall. Outside it’s all very Regency and John Nash. Inside it’s back to the new Universities of the 1970s, coffee bar cool and heavy-framed late 1990s advertising-agency spectacles.In the performance space there’s a very mixed bunch. Some of the earnest young folk have found their way in, but there’s also a jolly crowd of unreformed Stranglers teeshirt-wearing and beer gut- bearing baldies. It can’t be more than two-thirds full, and we’re dangerously approximate to the stage, and to Mr Thomas. But that gives a far superior view of what’s actually going on than we got at Queen Elizabeth Hall.
Make no mistake: it’s still chaos up there, but a far more organised chaos than one might have imagined. As David Thomas explained, “there is not one moment in its entirety, and various facets, that is not carefully crafted”. But of course that disciplined approach absolutely contradicts what Pere Ubu stand for: “You hire Pere Ubu” according to Thomas, “because you want to be scared out of your professional wits. Because you want to experience something that no one else can deliver, the thrill of the truly dangerous moment and its power to reveal”. And the tensions this provokes are played out very evidently on the stage. Intermission
Thomas is quite splendid as the misanthrope Pere Ubu, and quite accomplished as his wife Mere Ubu too, although occasionally he gets his voices, from southern preacher through a range of Disney characters, a tad confused.
He’s shrink-wrapped into his raincoat, and apparently drinking heavily from a flask – or is it Ubu that’s drinking? He often breaks out of character as he shuffles through his script sheets (“where are the words? I’ve spent two fucking years writing this and now I can’t find the words’) and frequently leaves the stage to refill the flask with something (the Pere Ubu rider demands a bottle of Remy Martin for every show). On one journey he pauses to ask cross-dressing drummer Steve Mehlman, “How am I doing Steve?”. “You’re drunk” comes the resigned reply. Well maybe, but it didn’t diminish Thomas’s performance one bit. His singing was hugely powerful, all the songs benefiting from the less theatrical setting. Because although it’s easy to lose sight of it in the mayhem, the music is really full throttle Pere Ubu rock and roll. In addition to their playing (Robert Wheeler’s theramin was mesmerising) the band also gamely played out parts of the play: Mehlman plays Captain Ordura, who, betrayed by Ubu when he seizes Poland, returns to defeat the usurper with the help of the Czar of Russia. Bassist Michele Temple turned in a very lively Polish Army, a messenger who receives one of the best lines of the show (but only at Thomas’s third attempt), and Prince Buggerlas, who is restored to the throne following Ubu’s defeat. I did explain the plot didn’t I? Pere Ubu
It doesn’t really matter. As Thomas said just before the end of the show, having spent about ten minutes on the floor (post defeat in battle, Ubu is sleeping in a remote cave where he is eventually reunited with Mere Ubu), “nothing that happens up here matters at all”. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth listening to it, nor to the music on the CD, nor to Thomas’s play itself which can be downloaded as Podcast. Better still, if you can, seek out an unforgettable live performance. It will be. – Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)
Watch 'Song Of The Grocery Police' by Pere Ubu:

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