Review: Victoria Melody’s Ugly Chief at Battersea Arts Centre

Victoria Melody has become a championship dog handler, beauty queen and pigeon racer, all in the name of her work as a performance artist charting Britain’s subcultures.

Her new show Ugly Chief, on at Battersea Arts Centre until November 18, is the darkly comedic real-life story of her most personal role to date: as director for her own father’s chaotic and, as it would turn out, premature funeral.

In 2013 Victoria’s father Mike was diagnosed with an incurable motor neurone disease. Given less than five years to live, he asked her to take on responsibility for organising the impending funeral.

But after a year of preparations, research, and frequent arguments over his increasingly outlandish requests, doctors realised Mike had been misdiagnosed all along.

Ugly Chief unites Victoria and the ever-reluctant Mike on stage to act out his ‘living funeral’. The duo dive into the often bizarre funeral industry and unpick our cultural attitudes to death and mourning in a show that is part documentary, play and stand up routine, all set to an interjecting musical score by a live brass band.

At the beginning we are introduced to Mike, a verbose antiques dealer and former TV personality who enjoys taking tongue-in-cheek swipes at his puffed-up ex-colleagues and expounding on his reluctance to be an actor; this show was all “our Vic’s idea.” Contemplating his illness, he is more concerned about ignoring the doctor’s orders to give up an 80-a-day habit and fondness for the bottle (“why would you do that if you were condemned?”) than deciding on flowers and coffins.

Propelled by shock at the impending loss of her beloved Dad, Victoria immerses herself into the funeral industry in an effort to learn everything possible about the grimly fascinating world of death, from the the vast array of burial options (including the back garden, but it does nosedive your house price) to the practicalities of how prepare a corpse for an open casket (not for the squeamish). Prepare to be enlightened and disturbed in equal measure.

Donning her top hat and funeral coat, Victoria acts out the service she meticulously arranged for her Dad, complete with glowing eulogy, before Mike takes over the second act and puts on the riotous send-off he really wanted with beer, Blackpool FC and a New Orleans jazz band taking centre-stage. Rightly irritated by her trite summation of his life, Mike lays down the gauntlet and challenges his daughter to tell him – and us – how she actually feels. In her re-written eulogy we learn what type of father Mike really was, good and bad, with devastating effect.

Both a caustically funny look at the commercialisation of death and a raucous father-daughter comedy, Ugly Chief left me blindsighted by its powerful emotional punch.

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