Brighton Festival 2018
How a pissed-off pumpkin and a secret art dealer look at their relationship to each other in the face of death.
Warning! Contains spoilers!
Artists and performer Victoria Melody for Ugly Chef teams up with her father Mike, a former antiques dealer to show us what happened when her father mistakenly got diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. Blurring the boundaries between performance, real life and personal experience she addresses the subject of death whilst highlighting the often layered and complex relationship we have with our parents and how we deal with their mortality.
As with one of her first pieces, Major Tom, in which she persiflages beauty contests by means of her basset hound Major Tom, she once again fully immerses herself in the research process and uses this as a theatrical device. Planning her father’s funeral she writes a eulogy, hires a Jazz band to play Mike’s favourite songs and trains as a funeral director in the Welsh town of Port Talbot where she is told that ‘Melody’ means ‘Ugly Chief’ in Gaelic. (This, by the way turns out to be untrue as ‘melody’ of course just means ‘tune’).
Already having started planning Mike’s funeral, it turns out he has been diagnosed incorrectly and gets the unexpected but joyous ‘all clear’. Melody decides to continue her work and research because “a funeral is just like a sad theatre show” and concludes that now the time has come to collaborate with her dad. This obviously is a difficult but also enriching decision, since as we all know: it isn’t always easy to deal let alone work with your father. One just knows the other too well. Worst of all Vic (as everyone in a parent-child relationship understands) recognises the good as the bad traits of Mike in herself and tells us about her rather unusual upbringing . Or to put it in Philip Larkin’s words from his poem This be the Verse: ‘They f*ck you up your mum and dad. They don’t mean to but they do. They fill you with the faults they had and add some extra just for you’.
Family history and upbringing are brought to the forefront with a lot of humour and love and whilst setting the scene, we get to know the two characters, or better the actual people, Mike and Vic Melody. We are introduced to Mike’s favourite songs and the outstanding Jazz band whose musical interludes are used as leads within the piece. Through Vic’s research we understand more and more about the financially prosperous economy of the funeral industry and which coffin to choose (“you thought you looked good when you were alive, but you can look even better when you are dead”). We learn how Vic briefly encounters ‘Howard and the Cremators’ during her work within the funeral business and discover Mike’s passion for the tangerine football club and his wish for a tangerine funeral despite his daughter’s objections.
Unravelling their relationship, Victoria tells us about the unusual upbringing she had taking the story of the taxidermy donkey which her father burned at her birthday party to have a bonfire as an example. Obviously the sight of the mule going up in flames prompted all of her young friends to run away in tears as they thought it was alive. To strengthen their relationship and for further performance material we accompany father and daughter on their travels to New Orleans. Here their relationship becomes especially testing as they have different understandings of what the purpose of the trip is (Vic= for research, Mike= to get pissed and listen to music). Again, this prompts a range of comical anecdotes (as for example the ‘Pissed of Pumpkin’ which is a character Vic performs in a video as feedback to her time at Chelsea College of Art. ). Overcoming their difficulties and on their return from New Orleans, Vic and Mike partner up again.
This multi-layered and deeply human performance piece is an absolute must-see. Often laughing to tears, I felt very moved and touched by the portrayal of the father-daughter relationship of the ‘two Ugly Chiefs’ in sight of Mike’s possible death. With humour and sensitivity they tackled the often still difficult subject of death in Western society whilst never loosing sight of the depth of the subject matter. The performance shows the universal and common traits we find in our relationship to our parents and how we tackle and negotiate these. Fore mostly though the piece highlights that it should not take a false diagnosis to talk about issues of death and the process of dying which can otherwise be left to late to address. And last but not least we should not forget humour keeps us alive and lets us come to terms with the human condition. To conclude (and in this case disagreeing with Mike’s favourite exclamation), Ugly Chief is an outstanding piece of performance and certainly far from being ‘Absolute Bollocks’!