Review: U.B.U: A Cautionary Tale at The Bordello Room, Kings Cross Hotel

By Helena Parker


Climate change is an issue at the fore-front of people's minds nowadays. Why wouldn’t it be? Its effects, if gone unchecked, would change life as we know it. All generations have at some point believed that their world was the climax of civilisation, that impending doom was upon us: T.S Eliot’s poetry in the 1920s depicting the grit of the city so different from life before, or the Cuban Missile crisis in the 1960s threatening to eradicate life through nuclear disaster.

And it seems now modern thinking, at least in the West, coalesces around this catastrophic thinking. What will life be like in 50 years? Will there still be fresh water to drink, beaches to visit, food to be had? What are the prospects of having children, when our own future is so clouded with concern and unease? Clearly, I think about climate change often. But this was the perfect frame of mind in which to walk into Richard Hilliar’s U.B.U: A Cautionary Tale.


U.B.U is a rewritten, distinctly Australian version of Alfred Jarry’s infamous Ubu Roi (King Ubu). Set in ‘Pooland’ it centres around the grotty character of Pa Ubu, an old military hero and his cunning wife Ma Ubu. Pulling on narrative threads from Macbeth and Hamlet, Ma Ubu along with the Prime Minister Fuller Bjullschitt, news reporter Medea Information and downtrodden scientist Murray Faseema convince the dim witted Pa Ubu to kill King Dumc’nt and instate himself on the throne. With Pa Ubu in charge, his greedy manipulators can stop any change being made to solve the ‘Great Heatening’ and continue to profit from the mining industry that made their country rich.


U.B.U is, in short, an absolute riot of a play. Absolutely nothing is sacred to director and first time playwright Richard Hilliar. And if the names were any indication, this play is flithy. Abounding, with poo jokes and crushing satire, the original French play has been very well updated to an Australian context right down to Ubu’s military medals made from Coles minis. Most spectacular about this play are the wonderful costumes by Tanya Woodland and the inventive hair and makeup by Ash Bell, who also doubled as the set and prop designer. These costumes are kooky and very impressive, particularly Ma Ubu’s ‘fancy’ dress made from rainbow tulle that clashes impeccably with her neon yellow wig. Music by Tegan Nicholls added to the humour of the piece, with a particularly engaging segment being played to Edvard Greig’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King (Peer Gynt)’.


U.B.U draws on the rich tradition of vaudeville in its use of puppetry, sock puppets and bawdy songs. This play is a crowd-pleaser and a great antidote to the often sombre plays that are usually programmed in more main-stage companies. The performances too were very charismatic and Hilliar should be commended on assembling such a talented cast. I particularly enjoyed Tristan Black’s greasy Prime Minister and Gideon Payten-Griffiths as bonny Prince Bitchard, although all the performances were strong across the board and should be congratulated. Sam Glissan demonstrated a capable performance as Pa Ubu. However I wondered whether Glissan could have emphasised Ubu’s character arc more assuredly? Ubu seemed to be the same from start to finish which, unfortunately, made him one of the least enjoyable characters to watch. The actor seemed to rely heavily on volume and aggression to make his point heard, which to be fair, crafted a distinctly sinister Ubu. Perhaps if Glissan allowed Ubu to descend into this mode rather than exist in it throughout, his character could have been more engaging.


U.B.U: A Cautionary Tale gives us no heroes, no happy ending. It truly is a ‘cautionary tale’ that forces us witness the future that would unfold if we collectively continue to listen to ‘Bjullschitting’ politicians and the manipulating media and if we, ultimately, only start to care when its too late. No one can say this play is subtle. But after 2 hours of entertainment, they earn it. And at its heart, there is a sincere plea for change.


Do see it if you can, U.B.U truly is a wicked, naughty gem of a play.

Image Credit: Ross Waldron

All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.

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