Victoria Melody is a kind of performance art shapeshifter. She slots herself into small, deeply odd subcultures, becoming accepted thanks to a mix of sunny, dappy cheerfulness and extreme dedication to the cause. Then she makes a show about it. So far, she’s crafted loving, non-judgemental hymns to the worlds of pigeon fancying, northern soul, beauty pageants, dog shows and the hair extension trade. But ‘Ugly Chief’, made in collaboration with her mercurial antiques dealer dad Mike Melody, has smashed apart her careful methodology – and produced something that’s got a fascinating, weird intensity of its own.
The basic premise is that they’re staging a funeral for him, together, after he got a false diagnosis of terminal illness. She trains as a funeral director, and tries to tell us gross, revealing facts about death and dying: how they sew up your mouth, how the coffin swells and cracks like an egg in the crematorium. She tries to deliver a glowing eulogy, too. Still living, her dad won’t go down quietly. He’s grumpy, phlegmatic and allergic to all sentiment unless it’s a tear shed over Blackpool entering the Premier League. He consistently, hilariously, derails her plans for the show with rambling anecdotes and a four-piece jazz band that thunder out northern soul classics.
Despite Mike’s efforts, ‘Ugly Chief’ ends up being an intriguing meditation on its nominal subject: on death, the things that go unsaid when someone dies, on the hypocrisy of rituals. But as they take turns to lead the show’s direction, it sprawls out, rich and expansive as the most lavish funeral buffet, to take in northern working class identity, art school elitism and flawed parenthood.
Most of all, it’s the story of Mike and Victoria, and their efforts to collaborate: two people locked in an awkward dance, each trying to mould the other into shape. Its wit and lightness never hides the fact that this must have been a colossally difficult show to make – dredging up decades of resentment and pain. It shouldn’t work. But under the pressure of their prickly, uncomfortable relationship, the performance morphs from documentary theatre to something new. Something that’s flawed, beautiful and utterly human.