When Alfred Jarry’s proto-surrealist play 'Ubu Roi' first opened in Paris, 1896, a near riot broke out after the very first word of the play (“merdre”; roughly translated as ‘shitter’) was uttered. The rioting continued throughout the performance and the play was eventually banned from being performed on the stage until 1907.

113 years on, in Blackheath, and a new take on the play garners a more favourable reaction – an elderly couple leave so far into the production, perhaps confused by the format for the evening.

If the original 'Ubu Roi' is an absurdist play, this is basically an absurdist rock concert. As well as playing the narrative songs lifted in sequence from their last album, 'Bring Me the Head of Ubu Roi', Pere Ubu act out multiple roles, as if performing a radio play, perform mimes of different events in the play, do basic dances, and wear various, primitive costumes. The band’s version of the play is an adaptation; a simplified version of the story, with several characters omitted. It is quite understandable; if the band were playing every character in the original play, there wouldn’t be anyone left to play the music.

The music itself is very good; often loud and pounding, and pretty catchy. The practically instrumental ‘Ubu Overture’ is played as a backing track at the beginning of the show, as three of the band members – synth player Robert Wheeler, bassist Michele Temple and drummer Steve Mehlman, who is wearing a rather fetching dress – march onstage and do a sloppily-choreographed dance. David Thomas is the last to take to the stage. He is playing both Pere and Mere Ubu throughout the show, which reinforces the idea that Mere Ubu is all in Pere’s head. ‘Song of the Grocery Police’ is the first proper track, a stuttering, conversational song, highlighting the play’s absurdism with its talk of snots spilling out of heads and big sombreros. Visually striking, abstract animation comes from the Brothers Quay, endlessly looping representations of each song and scene.

One of the real stand out songs is the quirky ‘March of Greed’, with its pulsing electronics, bouncing organ riff and catchy lead and backing vocal hooks.

Although the story is known as being difficult to understand, there is no issue following it tonight. The whole show has a vaguely chaotic feel, although the band is musically tight. The band members occasionally break out of character at certain points; one song, ‘Bring Me the Head’, is repeated completely after Thomas misses a line, and a couple of lines are delivered more than once, until Thomas is satisfied that they have been delivered correctly. It’s all part of the show of course, and on most occasions adds to the sense of the absurd.

The venue, Blackheath Halls, serves the show fairly well, looking like a cross between an old theatre and a town hall. The acoustics of the building probably serve quieter shows better than one as loud as this - some of the words of the songs are lost as vocals are slightly obscured – but generally, the sound is good enough that the story isn’t lost in the music.

Considering that the band members play multiple parts as well as their instruments, the costumes mainly consist of hessian sacks and rubber chicken heads and people break character regularly, the performance is surprisingly involving, to the point where it almost feels more like a play than a rock show. The whole band does a pretty good job of playing their roles, considering none of them are actors.

Once the band’s adaptation of 'Ubu Roi' is finished, the band come back onstage to play three additional numbers, their performances of ‘Over My Head’ (which Thomas describes as his version of ‘Lady in Red’), from ‘The Modern Dance’ and final song ‘Sad.txt’ from ‘Pennsylvania’ particularly standing out, leaving many wishing that Pere Ubu were playing a regular set in addition to their 'Ubu Roi'. Still, it’s hard to think of a recent rock performance as enjoyably different as this one.

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Commenting On: Blackheath Halls, London, 27/2/2010 - Pere Ubu

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