Watch: Trailer for Helen McCrory's Medea at the National Theatre
Review: The Valley of Astonishment at the Young Vic

Review: Cheek by Jowl's brilliantly bonkers Ubu Roi at the Barbican

Production photo by Johan Persson

This native French version of Alfred Jarry controversial play doesn't get off to a good start. For the first 15 minutes or so we watch as a teenage boy creeps around his parents house filming random domestic items really close up - the fur on his mothers coat, a hair in the bed, the stained toilet etc  while his parents prepare for a dinner party oblivious.

Most of the rooms he is in are hidden to us so we just see the footage projected on the wall of an all-white living room which is being prepared for the party. It goes on a bit.

But as the guests are about to arrive - something we are told via the subtitles screen - it picks up pace and turns into the most bonkers dinner party you are ever likely to see. The parents and guests double up as the characters from Ubu Roi including the money hungry and murderous king Pere Ubu (Christophe Gregoire), his Lady Macbeth-esque wife (Cecile Leterme) and his supporters and enemies including the crown Prince Bougrelas (Sylvain Levitte) whose parents Pere Ubu has murdered.

It reminded me a little of a game of musical statues. One moment the adults are all sitting around the table having a nice dinner, chatting inaudibly and then with a flick of a lighting switch they are involved in the crazed plot of Ubu Roi. And it flicks seemingly randomly between the two throughout which becomes increasingly amusing as the chaos and destruction spreads.

Dinner party and Ubu Roi overlap in actors and props. Pere Ubu dispenses with with King Wenslelas using a hand blender to drill into his head. The violence is cartoon-like in its execution - in this instance the strands of brain being pulled out Itcy and Scratchy-style - but with an element of surreal farce as Pere Ubu tries to dislodge a sticky piece of brain from his finger by shaking it.

Domesticity creeps in elsewhere too, the money Pere Ubu collects is a roll of tinfoil, the crown is a lamp shade and his battle tactics are squirted on the wall with a bottle of tomato ketchup.

The audience doesn't get off scott free either but rather than being squirted with sauce or showered with cornflakes Pere Ubu climbs over seats looking for bankers, we are in the city after all he says as he reverts briefly to English.

It is breathtakingly clever, organised chaos that startles, shocks and has you laughing out loud (particularly startling if you are the lady who hadn't heard Prince Bougrelas creep into the seat behind before yelling at the stage).

Having a group of teenage students sat nearby just added to the amusement. An audible "Ooo that's disgusting" when Pere Ubu is licking Ma Ubu's face during particularly French love scene added to the fun.

Underneath it all the juxtaposition of normality and chaos induced through greed and a corrosive power lust serves to highlight the fragility of civilised society and what potentially lies beneath the surface. As the son finally sits down to join his parents and their guests, just as cheese is being served, the dining table sits amid a mess and destruction that is worthy of  the aftermath of an alcohol-fuelled teenagers' party.

This is surreal theatre at its dizzying best and it won't be for everyone. It is like a Ferrari having to have a push start but once the engine catches you better buckle up.

It is only making a brief stop at the Barbican, tonight is the last night, before heading out on tour.