Review: Night of the Living Dead Live (Pleasance Theatre)

George A Romero’s classic horror movie is adapted for the stage

Tama Phethean, Marc Pickering, Ashley Samuels, Mari McGinlav in Night of the Living Dead Live
Tama Phethean, Marc Pickering, Ashley Samuels, Mari McGinlav in Night of the Living Dead Live
© Claire Bilyard

Interesting that this jokey Canadian adaptation of George A Romero's 1968 cinematic splatterfest arrives on the London stage at the same time as The Twilight Zone is playing in the West End. In their screen formats, both cultish titles have been perceived as reactions to a mounting sense of unease in the fabric of American life, channeling through the dread of the supernatural and/or horror genres, the disquieting feeling that a once-great nation is unravelling, and potentially staring into an unknowable abyss.

This stage Night Of The Living Dead is all about the humour though, and Benji Sperring's energetic, good-looking production pushes it relentlessly hard, almost entirely at the expense of any fear or tension. There are apparently only so many ways to portray rampaging zombies onstage and despite some decent aural shocks provided by soundscape designer and composer Samuel West, a certain degree of ennui sets in after the first half hour.

The most inspired elements of the staging are the designs. Diego Pitarch's gloriously grimy abandoned farmhouse and vivid costumes, and the ingenious lighting of Nic Farman which gives everyone a deathly pallor and bathes everything in a queasy, monochromatic glow, in tribute to the black-and-white of the original movie, are brilliant.

There are twenty audience members onstage (clad in boiler suits and shower caps lest they get sprayed with gore) but their physical presence dissipates what little tension there is between the actors. They also have the unfortunate effect of obscuring some views of vital parts of the action at times.

It has taken five people to bring the Living Dead's ghouls (Romero never used the term 'zombies' to describe his implacable, flesh-devouring creations) to the stage: writers Christopher Bond, Dale Boyer and Trevor Martin, and creators Christopher Harrison and Phil Pattison. While the programme doesn't specify how they divided up the work, the fact that there are five of them may explain the meandering nature of the script. It's not funny or frightening enough, and if you're unfamiliar with the original movie you may find the plot hard to follow. This is especially true of the second half where the authors further muddy the waters by offering a series of increasingly wearisome "what if" riffs on the story that fail to illuminate anything we've seen earlier in the evening, and extend a one-joke show almost to breaking point. It all ends with a gleefully gory musical number, vaguely reminiscent of Little Shop Of Horrors or The Toxic Avenger, that makes one wonder if the whole thing might not have been better off as a small-scale, bad taste musical.

As it is, the cast of six work their socks off to earn their laughs, albeit with varying degrees of success. Mike Bodie is terrific as a pompous police chief, while Jennifer Harding finds real fun in her dual roles as a knowingly loved-up youngster and a hard-bitten mother whose daughter has fallen victim to the monsters. Ashley Samuels provides a welcome respite from the mugging and mayhem as the good guy hero, fending off the undead attackers.

The film runs 96 minutes; this messy (in more ways than one) stage version comes in at two hours, and would benefit by losing half an hour and the tension-defusing interval. It also wouldn't hurt to amp up the sheer terror by several notches.