The Pleasance Theatre, Caledonian Road, London, 24/05/2019.
George Romero’s 1968 horror classic is considered by many to be the first proper zombie film and one which has inspired thousands of others since it’s release. Sure, the undead existed in cinema before the release of the movie but they weren’t the shuffling, flesh crazy creatures that terrified audiences in the sixties and ever since, and it was his blueprint for the brain dead monsters that has been copied countless times over the years. Now his masterpiece has been translated to the stage, though unlike the original film there’s a strong comedic element in it.
Like the film the play is in black and white, which may make you think that I’ve gone slightly insane but the entire set is in monochrome and the cast are made up in a similar manner, it’s an interesting decision but one which means all of the blood is less disturbing which did disappoint. In an unusual twist about twenty people can buy VIP seats which are on the stage and though they’re all wearing grey boiler suits they’re not made up, so it does diminishes the effect the designer / director was going for and makes it slightly less effective too. They sometimes get in the way of the rest of the audience’s view as well which is occasionally frustrating (I missed the first big death, for example, and was briefly confused) but then at other points zombies crash in to them or they’re covered in blood and it increases the fun of the production.
The first half is a reasonably faithful retelling of the film as Ben, Barbara, Harry Cooper and his family plus Judy and Tom end up hiding together in a musty old house as zombies wander around outside and occasionally manage to maul or murder one of the cast. If you’ve seen the film there won’t be many surprises but it’s amusing stuff most of the time, even if some of the performances are deliberately broad, with Harry Cooper seemingly having walked in off the set of a fifties screwball character while Barbara spends most of it in shock but when she doesn’t she squeaks in an over the top manner which is borderline annoying. Thankfully the rest of the cast are strong, the dialogue’s often funny, and though it’s nothing particularly original it moves along at a decent pace and leads to laughter at regular intervals.
Fortunately the second half is far more enjoyable and unpredictable as it consists of a selection of “What If’s?”, including what might have happened if they’d just hidden in the basement, what if the women had made all the big decisions, what if they all had a huge selection of weapons and what if a stereotypical all American white male had been in charge amongst various other scenarios. These segments are far funnier than anything found within the first half as it plays around with various horror movie tropes and it contains commentary on sexism and racism in the sixties, though most of it is sillier and the writers aren’t exactly interested in making any great satirical or moralistic point. Then it ends with the best What If of them all, which I adored an enormous amount, but in some ways it’s slightly to it’s detriment as it made me wish that the whole play had been performed in such a manner.
The biggest issue with the production is that there’s not quite enough full on zombie action, in a couple of parts the undead take the main stage but most of the time they’re only briefly seen grabbing hold of people through windows or standing by the open door at the back of the stage, with many of the killings taking place off stage. It gets gory at the end but I can imagine a lot of the people who paid £40 for the VIP tickets to be on stage being a tad disappointed, and while I only spoke to one afterwards that certainly was the case. Some of the performances clash a little too with Marc Pickering’s Harry and Mari McGinlay’s Barbara being almost pantomime-esque at times, but in general the cast impress and kudos must go to many of them for doubling and sometimes tripling up.
If you’re not a fan of the film or comedy horror in general this certainly isn’t going to convert you, and a good few jokes may go over your heard too (the recurring gag about a stuffed weasel especially), and at £35 a ticket for seats near the front it’s a little over priced. But if you’ve a fondness for tongue in cheek ridiculousness it’s a fairly fun ride, and though it’s unlikely to be anything you’ll be raving about for years to come it’s a likeable affair and one which will make you glad that zombies have yet to take over the Earth.
Tickets can be bought for the production here.