Kneehigh Theatre: The Dancing Frog

Our 10-year-old granddaughter is staying with me and Mrs TD for a week. She comes for a stay with us every summer, but this is the first time without her big brother – he’s on a sea cadet camp. “I’ll be a lonely child,” she told us happily. “Don’t you mean only child?” my wife asked. “No,” she said happily; “lonely”.

Kneehigh Asylum brochure cover

Kneehigh Asylum (their outdoor dome at the Lost Gardens of Heligan) brochure

On Wednesday we took her to the afternoon performance of Kneehigh Theatre’s show ‘The Dancing Frog’, based on the children’s story by the gifted illustrator and writer Quentin Blake. It’s directed by Mike Shepherd, one of Kneehigh’s founders. We went last time with her parents to see Ubu Karaoke, which I posted about last week. This show is more suitable for a younger audience, and sure enough there was a row of tots sitting on cushions on the floor just in front of the performing area. They entered into the audience participation moments with gusto – we all did, it was irresistible.

It was typically exuberant, inventive and multi-talented Kneehigh. Elderly Gertrude, played by singing, accordion-playing Tim Dalling (who plays an array of other characters in the show), meets her youthful self (Jenny Beare), and they share memories of her sailor husband (also played by Tim), who drowned at sea (though we get to see some startlingly brief shore leaves before his ship hits an iceberg). Heartbroken, Gertrude stands by the river, feeling she can’t live without the love of her life. Like Ophelia, she enters the water, but as she sinks down, a frog swims in front of her and they surface.

The cover of Quentin Blake's book

The cover of Quentin Blake’s book

Then the frog dances for her. Entranced, Gertrude takes him home. He loves to dance to the music on her record player. Soon he’s performing on stage, at first in England (he makes his name as a replacement for a talking dog who develops a sore throat and can’t go on stage), and goes on tour all over the world.

We’re treated to cameo performances of his remarkable choreography in all the major world capitals, from flamenco in Spain to Swan Lake in Russia – memorably staged in front of us complete with corps-de-ballet in tutus and an evil villain. George performs a stunning solo.

There’s a heart-stopping scene at the end when George the frog is trapped by a fire on the 13th floor of his New York hotel. Gertrude stands below with a bucket of water: George has to leap into it – will he survive? You’ll have to go the show to find out!

Blake's illustrations on the book's inside front cover

Blake’s illustrations on the book’s inside front cover

George dancing (drawn by Blake)

George dancing (drawn by Blake)

It’s an absolutely delightful piece of imaginative theatre. The puppet frog (who looks just like drawings in Blake’s book) is handled by Alisa Dalling. Although she’s more or less holding him to make him move and dance, we quickly forgot her presence and believed entirely that this cheerful green creature was a living, worm-chomping amphibian who saved Gertrude from grief, and charmed all who saw him (apart from a nasty landlady and some rascally theatre folk who wanted to lock George up and force him to perform without Gertrude’s protection and love).

George and Gertrude have to get through some difficult and even dangerous times, then, reinforcing the heartwarming moral of this lovely story. The book has a frame narrative omitted in this dramatisation. Young Jo asks her mother for a story, and this is the tale she tells. When it’s finished, Jo asks if it was true, for frogs don’t normally dance, and nobody could catch one and make it perform on stage; her mother replies

‘You can do all kinds of things if you need to enough’.

The story is told with bracing vigour, humour, pathos and panache, with perfectly chosen music and songs (some original and cleverly pertinent to the plot and characters), dance and mime. There’s particularly clever use of props, like aeroplanes, butterflies, the husband’s ship (and that nasty iceberg) – and even the flames of the fire.

We all agreed afterwards that we’d enjoyed the show immensely, and completely suspended our disbelief. I’d highly recommend you go and see this terrifically entertaining show if you get the chance – or read the book if you can’t.

Kneehigh Theatre: Ubu Karaoke

On Saturday I went with Mrs TD and daughter’s family to see the innovative Kneehigh Theatre’s rousing show Ubu Karaoke in their ‘Asylum’ marquee in the beautiful setting of the Lost Gardens of Heligan .

We always expect to be delighted by Kneehigh’s invention and imaginative multi-talented casts and crew; Ubu Karaoke is probably their best yet. There’s a storyline of sorts – crazed, megalomaniac dictator assassinates the equally dodgy ruler, creates a regime of repression and disorder designed to benefit only himself, until the ex-leader’s daughter rises up against him (a bear is also involved) and he’s flushed down a toilet – literally. It’s described on their website as ‘ this deliriously unhinged improvised promenade musical’:

We all know an Ubu.
Impossibly greedy, unstoppably crude, inexorably hell-bent on making our country great again!
Sound familiar?

The show is staged in the round, with the audience sitting or standing in tiered wooden stalls, but also encouraged to stand next to the action and mingle with the players. The programme boasts with justification that’s it’s ‘as satisfying as Massaoke, and eminently more useful’. A terrific house band, with the glorious name The Sweaty Bureaucrats, belts out a rousing sequence of classic pop and rock tunes to punctuate and illustrate the action. There are electronic info-screens all round the circular tent with a constant stream of hashtag jokes, commentary and lyrics to the songs. The audience are encouraged to sing along; on the Saturday we went they did so with gusto, making a powerful, stirring, hilarous atmosphere.

Kneehigh programmeIt’s played for laughs, with plenty of scatological humour. The dictator’s henchman, for example, revels in the name Captain Shittabrique (played with panache by Robi Luckay); he feigns disgust at the regular and predictable mispronunciations of his surname. The kids loved that. (So did the adults, really).

There’s a serious underlying message, though, as there was in Alfred Jarry’s original anarchic, surreal/Symbolist romp staged for just one performance on its first run in Paris in 1896 – it caused a riot, with its pointed satire on power elites and ridiculing of the establishment and authority. Ubu was Jarry’s bizarre ‘weapon of mass disruption’, a ‘howling, hysterical metaphor for greed’ (programme notes). His play was in turn loosely parodying elements of Hamlet (which Kneehigh keep by having the murdered leader’s ghost appear on a high platform; we know he’s a ghost because he has a paper bag over his head bearing the word ‘GHOST’ on it), King Lear (those crazed, power-mad dynasties) and others I probably missed.

Alfred Jarry

Portrait of Jarry, By Atelier Nadar – Reproduced in Peintures, gravures et dessins de Alfred Jarry, published by Collège de pataphysique, 1968, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6248594

Kneehigh have kept some other features of Jarry’s play (like the talking, renegade bear), but change several to highlight the parallels with some of today’s more egregiously outspoken, bigoted and narcissistic leaders. Preening President Dallas, for example, has a pointedly blonde, initially vapid and complicit daughter called Bobbi (played by Kyla Goodey; like most of the cast, she played other roles, in her case as a…well, I don’t know what to call it: sort of crowd-rouser and chorus.)

Jarry (1873-1907) was just 23 when his play was first performed. The absurd, strutting, obese, grotesque figure of Ubu is said to have been based on his old physics schoolteacher. His uniquely original theatrical debut made Jarry a prototypical punk superstar. His playful, irreverent use of language, liberally laced with expletives and toilet humour, is retained with gleeful vigour by Kneehigh; our 12-year-old grandson was shocked by some of the more outrageous stuff – but he’s a bit of a prude.

Jarry was a forerunner of Dada and Surrealism, and invented the term ‘pataphysics (the redundant apostrophe is intentional). It’s defined as the science of the realm beyond metaphysics, a typically absurdist spin on a serious concept. It’s also been called the science of imaginary solutions, concerned with the laws governing exceptions – the repressed part of a rule that ensures that the rule doesn’t work (obviously).

He owes a debt to earlier literary iconoclasts like Rabelais and perhaps Cervantes. There’s also a nod towards the dynastic tragedies of classical theatre (his title and plot in Ubu Roi parodies aspects of Oedipus Rex). He clearly influenced some of his contemporaries like Apollinaire, and later figures from Oulipo, including Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec, as well as Ionesco, Genet, Boris Vian and others.

This is all starting to sound very serious and highbrow – but Kneehigh’s Ubu Karaoke gave us as much fun as a theatrical experience as we can remember. The MC (Niall Ashdown) played a deadpan commentator and instigator of mayhem, and produced some brilliant improvised jokes. The deposed President, Nick Dallas, was played with sinister swagger by the excellent and splendidly named Dom Coyote, who also played a mean guitar in the house band.

Tom Jackson-Greaves was responsible for the energetic choreography (Kneehigh specialise in physical musical theatre), and came on to do an astonishing solo in the guise of a fourth-wall-breaking barman (there’s a working bar doing a brisk trade throughout the performance).

I can’t finish without praising the astonishing cross-dressing lead players. Katy Owen played Mr Ubu, a diminutive but terrifyingly outrageous performance with an accent that mangled Cardiff with something unidentifiable and totally weird. Mrs Ubu was portrayed by Mike Shepherd (who started Kneehigh back in 1980) as a sort of psychotic panto dame.

If you are in the area I’d urge you to see experience Ubu Karaoke; its run continues until August 25. I don’t think it’s touring, but Kneehigh’s Fup is revived and playing in various venues across the country. We’re taking the granddaughter to see their show The Dancing Frog next week – it’s based on the Quentin Blake story, and looks great fun, too.

See also my post on Kneehigh’s Asylum performance two summers ago: The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk – based on the story of the artist Marc Chagall.