George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is quite simply, a cult classic. It is iconic in black and white, ridiculous but gruesome, and holds a perfect balance between comedy and horror. However, Night of the Living Dead LIVE! stage Director Benji Sperring carves out his own mould. While the cast remain in monotone, eerie grey and white makeup makes the distinction between foe and friend somewhat blurry, for a zombie, or perhaps more appropriately ‘ghoul’ apocalypse, Night of the Living Dead LIVE! is rather fun.
We follow Romero’s original story in the first act as Ben (Ashley Samuels) and Barbra (Mari McGinlay) find themselves stranded in a seemingly deserted farmhouse. However, they soon discover they are not alone. They meet an angry married couple struggling to protect an injured daughter and two sickly sweet teenagers who are also hiding out. Chaos ensues as the unlikely gang must fight against the undead to survive.
The second act takes off independently, demonstrating not two or three, but six alternate endings to the first half, asking the all-important what ifs? It drags, but does not fail to achieve laughs even after almost reaching breaking point. The whole production is drenched in acute, stupid self-awareness, a murderous police officer exhaustedly exclaims “What a mess” as the cast yet again meet their death. Jennifer Harding’s split portrayal as both Judy, the teenage airhead, and Helen, the begrudged housewife, gets perfectly confused each time they are reborn, wigs and dresses become interchangeable and Harding’s distinct voices remain the only indication of character.
Living Dead eagerly provides participation as twenty audience members are dressed to the teeth in protective clothing and placed precariously onstage. They are used as props, doused in gore and spun around. Though disappointingly, while the play is rife with laughs, gore throwing included, it falls flat in scare factor. Sperring has reduced the production to pure comedy, the jokes are slapstick, the ghouls causing gore but not a lot of fright. Whether this is the intention remains unclear, though it certainly separates it from its predecessor.
While the play shows of hints of the same unease generated by The Twilight Zone (also now showing in the West End), both are reactionary to American unease and translate well to the current political climate in the UK, its comedic tone dials down any true horror and it is unable to grasp the unique seriousness generated by its competition. While diehard fans may feel let down by this production, its lack of horror need not make it any less enjoyable.
Night of the Living Dead LIVE! Is playing until the 8 June. For more information and tickets, visit the Pleasance Theatre website.