RSo, after tackling the bouts of depression and anxiety that university graduates suffer from and then taking on sexual discovery with a look at some absolutely hilarious and other slightly squeamish verbatim stories, Ugly Bucket theatre decided to cheer things up slightly and take on… death.
The piece’s premise starts with the wishes of a terminally ill man and his request for a slightly different funeral service. Initially a ten minute piece created for Tim Miles’ funeral service, in the style of Ugly Bucket’s signature abstract clowns; they created a segment of work that then went into research and development. What came out and premiered at the Unity Theatre certainly has the potential to raise eyebrows across the theatre world of Liverpool and beyond.
The show is typical Ugly Bucket (if you don’t know what that means by now, then look through my previous reviews of their other shows and you’ll understand what I mean). There is comedy in abundance, truth from verbatim interviews that ground the show and the subject matter in a way that is hard to do in other forms and a physical style that is undoubtedly their own. In other words, a solid foundation for a great show that takes on a very difficult subject matter.
As expected of Ugly Bucket now, the energy that they project from the outset is impressive in itself and indeed creates a somewhat foreboding atmosphere as there is a tension in the subject matter that aids the ensemble from the outset. There is, however, a sense of disjointed energy and style from the newer members to Ugly Bucket compared to the established actors, which I will explore fully at a later point in this review.
One point I will make which is brilliantly effective, is the ‘Early Christmas’ scene. This is the first scene in which there is extended speech and dialogue from the actors themselves, as opposed to just responding and miming to verbatim recordings, and the effect it has on the audience is palpable. It highlights the importance of the scene and the significance of grief in all of its flaws, and that in itself deserves recognition.
In that regard, Ugly Bucket do a stellar job of presenting life, grief and death from various angles. From viewing it as a medical professional, to dealing with the alien language of what to say to someone who has just lost a loved one. There are a whole host of situations that this show presents to the audience that we simply don’t always acknowledge when it comes to dealing with grief and the idea of death. There is a poignancy in this show that is hard to recreate on stage and that is what really shines through in the more serious moments of this piece; there is enough substance in the interviews mixed with solid directing and strong acting that leave audience members in tears at certain scenes.
What really stood out to me in this performance, was the honesty of it all. From the verbatim words of the interviewees, to the way in which the actors presented themselves, a lot of what made it on stage was daringly honest and upfront about the subject matter. This is something I think Ugly Bucket do quite well in all of their shows; and what really sets them out from other companies of similar standing is their interviews that run throughout the show. They aren’t formal, there is a back and forth between the interviewees and the interviewer, and it creates an atmosphere of candid honesty and truth. And as anyone who has done any kind of training in the arts, that is all anyone is looking for in a piece: truth.
As usual, some of the comedy is, at times, of a ridiculously high standard and deserves a lot more recognition than I could ever mention. Every time I have seen one of Ugly Bucket’s shows, I always talk about how I’ve not seen a comic scene like I had just witnessed in years, and again I must say the same thing, although I will state that this time it follows a similar style as some material in Bost-Uni Plues.
The ‘Shark’ scene in Good Grief is hands down, one of the most daring jokes of the entire show and for that reason it created one of the biggest laughs of the night. What I really admire about a scene like this is that it doesn’t go out searching for a laugh, it just kind of gets on with it, knowing that the laugh will come, and boy does it. There is a subtlety to this scene that isn’t really matched by anything else in terms of comedic value throughout the show and that is why I have chosen to use it as an example. Grace Gallagher as the shark just oozes confidence and has the audience in the palm of her hand/fin throughout the scene. Breaking the fourth wall indirectly yet still not chasing the audience for a laugh is a hard technique to get your head around, yet she manages it with seemingly relative ease.
Moving on from boosting the egos of those involved in this performance, it has to be said that there is still some room for improvement with this piece and it is still very raw in some areas. It is clear for example that two of the cast members are new to Ugly Bucket’s style and are, at times, visibly not on the same level as the more experienced cast members in this style. Canice Ward, Angelina Clifford and Grace Gallagher are so in-sync with each other after performing together in Bost-Uni Plues for so long, that oftentimes it is hard to tell where one of them ends and the other begins. They’re very clearly on the same wavelength of thought and energy and this only comes through working together continuously. Whereas the newer members to this ensemble just aren’t quite there yet. That isn’t necessarily a criticism of the piece, but it does bring the energy down in some scenes and it spreads out to the audience that this is the case, albeit with an unknown reason as to why for audiences new to UB.
Another pitfall of this piece is simply that it is very new. The style of theatre that Ugly Bucket pride themselves on is a high energy, intense performance that never stops to give you a second to look back at what you have just witnessed. That is how it presents its previous two productions and what Good Grief tries to achieve. But simply put, it doesn’t always do this and the energy on stage dips to a point that slows the show down on more than one occasion. This doesn’t make the show bad by any means, just that it can draw itself out for too long at certain times.
Take for example the ‘Alien’ scene. Personally, I felt that introducing the aliens took too long. The same joke happened four times and by the time they had gotten through it, the audience stopped laughing as a collective unit, and instead were flaring up in little pockets of half-hearted chuckles. This seemed a little below standard for Ugly Bucket in that they don’t usually chase a laugh, yet here, they did? Essentially it was just introducing the same character over and over again and having the same interaction repeatedly. This sapped the energy from the climax of the scene, which should have been rapturous (as it very well had the capacity to be), to being something that I have always thought was below Ugly Bucket – hammering home a point to an audience as if they won’t get it otherwise. That isn’t saying that this scene should be scrapped altogether, the components are there for a very clever and effective scene with a climax that has the potential to turn the head of even the most ardent of critics. I’d just argue that it needs streamlining and condensing to keep the audience from wandering too far.
Taking these points on board though, that does not mean that this show is beyond repair and should never be performed again. If anything I’d argue the opposite, and with gusto. This show is still in its early stages of finding its feet and as such needs more time in front of an audience to develop. It needs to figure out what works and what needs tightening up. It needs time for its cast to be on stage together, because only then can that chemistry and cohesion be built up and for the show to be able to reach its full potential. All of the beats are there for this piece of theatre to be a roaring success and it has the potential to go from strength to strength… Some of the beats just need putting into the right order.
One other thing that I have to raise is that Ugly Bucket seem to use physicality in their scenes quite a bit (which is fairly obvious given that their primary style is clowning), and they use it to their advantage with an obvious set of skilled performers in this style. But this production showed glances of stepping it up a notch in both the level of performance, and of the maturity too. For example the ‘Birth’ scene is visually stunning and really warmed the audience up so early on in the performance. This level of awareness and physicality in Ugly Bucket’s productions is something I have not seen before and really helps to round off their repertoire so as they’re not just seen as a ‘funny’ ensemble. They’re funny, yes. But they’re also devilishly talented. And that is a dangerously brilliant mix. All that is left to say is something an audience member mentioned in passing when talking about this piece:
‘Sometimes, when something is that good, you’ve just got to stand back and admire it.’
Theatrevolt rating: 4/5 stars