Let us be clear that ‘Night of the Living Dead – LIVE!’ is not for everyone. If you think that you don’t like theatre because you believe it to be boring and stuffy, then in fact this may well be the show for you. Conversely, if you’re a frequent but conservative theatre-goer, who enjoys staid and reverential story-telling then this might be one you want to avoid. If it isn’t obvious then let us spell it out more clearly: this show is this theatrical season’s version of Marmite – you will either love it or hate it – it is very unlikely that you will be ambivalent about it. There is no middle ground here.
Adaptations of films into theatre shows are often tricky, and frequently difficult to convincingly carry off. Horror theatre is also difficult to do well – in essence a creative team has two options: one – play it straight and try to scare the audience with heightened tension and psychological tricks, the other option is to lean into the comedic possibilities and pastiche the source material. The team behind this adaptation of Romero’s genre-defining work have chosen the latter. Here, it’s the right choice – the 1968 movie was the originator of so many plot elements, so many components that are now regarded as a foundation of that genre, that to attempt a serious adaptation would have been a mistake – the audience knows what shocks are probably coming, indeed, in the first act of this production, many of them know the precise plot of the story being told, and it would be impossible to generate the sense of shock and fear that the original cinema audience experienced when the movie was first released, uncertificated, to an unsuspecting group of cinema-goers. So instead the comedy route has been taken for this homage to a story we now all know, even if we haven’t seen the movie. And indeed, you don’t need to have seen the movie to be able to understand this show – although you do have to understand the tropes of the genre, and how they play out, as the 96-minute running time of the film is here condensed into 45 minutes of the first act. Even in this, relatively straight, abridging of the movie the creative team’s obvious love of Romero’s classic is obvious, and as the characters shuffle towards the end of Act One the writers set up the structure of Act Two.
And it’s in Act Two that the creative team have rammed their tongues so firmly into their cheeks that someone must surely be nursing a dislocated jaw. Prompted by the line ‘If Only’, we’re launched into a series of explorations of all the possible different ways that the movie’s narrative could have evolved if one key factor had been different each time: What if our group of strangers had hidden in the cellar? What if a white American was in charge? The women? What if they tried to assimilate? What if one person sacrificed themselves for the good of the group? What if it was a musical? By the time we get to that musical finale, the gore factor has been ramped up, and the boiler suits supplied to Premium Ticket holders, seated on the rotating stage, start to look very necessary. This second act then, could be labelled as “the FanFic Alternate Universes” – and they get sillier and more exaggerated as the second act continues.
Comedy is key in this performance, and the superb performances by the six-strong cast make this a hugely enjoyable and entertaining production. If you understand horror movies that feature ghouls (the ‘Z word’ is never used), and enjoy parodies, then you will enjoy this show. And by the time the show stumbles, undead-like to its conclusion, you’ll be clapping your hands together – and if you’re sat on the stage, someone else’s too!
‘Night of the Living Dead – LIVE!’ continues at the Pleasance, Islington, until 8th June 2019. Details here: https://www.pleasance.co.uk/event/night-living-dead-live#overview