George A. Romero’s unparalleled 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, is commonly regarded as one of the most iconic and influenced films of all time. Romero radically redefined the genre of the modern horror film and is widely referred to as the father of the zombie genre with his influence still spawning countless zombie films and series seen today. Night of the Living Dead™ Live is a fun and hilarious play adaption re-imagining George A. Romero’s legendary classic onstage at The Pleasance Theatre in London. It’s the only production officially authorised by the Romero estate, paying loving homage to the film and recreating all those iconic scenes, alongside lots of new material for newcomers and hardcore fans alike!

Night of the Living Dead was produced at a time of incredible social and political upheaval. The Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the collapse of the patriarchal nuclear family and growing mistrust of the government and the media are just some of the themes that influenced both the filmmakers and their audience. Night of The Living Dead Live explores these themes as still relevant today through the classic story of laughs, brains, blood, guts, braaiiins, music and BRAAAAIIIINNNSS. Through a series of multiple endings, the characters are all faced with different issues and challenges while desperately trying to survive the night. However, their contrasting personalities and agendas always seem to prevent the group from working together. Which leaves the audience wondering, “could anyone survive a night of the living dead?”

Night of the Living Dead Live is presented in two acts. The first act plays the story as per the original film and then explores multiple endings depicting how the characters might have made it out alive “if only…” during Act Two. The Pleasance production stars Ashley Samuels (Fun Home, Mowtown The Musical) as Ben, Jennifer Harding (The Clockmakers Daughter) as Helen/Judy, Marc Pickering (Sky Atlantic’s Boardwalk Empire) playing Harry, Mike Bodie (The Comedy About a Bank Robbery) as Chief McClelland, with Tama Phethean (The Great Duke of Florence and The False One) as Tom/Vince and Mari McGinlay playing Barbra.

As Ben, Ashley Samuels was every bit the leading man. Opening and closing the second act with a bang, literally, he oozed confidence and charisma onstage and the audience felt in safe hands following his journey. As Chief McClelland, Mike Bodie had a comic timing that made every scene seem fresh (even when the same scene was repeated over and over… and over again). Jennifer Harding as Helen and Judy was so much fun to watch. Playing dual roles is never easy but Harding managed to make the two characters feel like completely separate people with voice and physicality. Some hilarious movements ensued when one character mocked the other’s voice, one commented the other couldn’t be relied upon as she was “never around” and that she “can’t be in two places at once.” Tama Phethean had fun with love sick Tom and Deputy Vince. Phethean’s Tom was a spirited all-American boy infatuate with love while his Vince was a hard working Deputy often not listened to (again and again) by his Chief. Mari McGinlay as Barbra was absolutely hilarious. Not coping with the ghoul-pocolypse at all, Barbra is frozen in fear and unable to speak throughout most of the story. However, McGinlay uses this to her advantage and reacts and communicates through her actions and a series of noises. A tour de force performance of a tricky character. As pompous 60’s man of the house Harry, Marc Pickering was brilliant. A consummate professional, Pickering used his skill to flesh out the character of Harry from husband concerned for his wife and sick daughter to the madman that shoots everyone during one of the multiple endings. As an ensemble the cast work very effectively together, milking the play for all it’s comedy moments and making each character jump from screen to stage with new life.

Diego Pitarch’s design was extremely effective. The original 1968 film is in black and white… and so was the play. Pitarch’s Tim Burton-esque set cleverly enveloped the whole stage, portraying the basement and second level of the fateful house where our cast are holdup fighting the ghouls. A simple revolve was utilised to help explore the multiple endings during Act Two and the entire set was illustrated in hues of grey, black, white and cream. Combined with Helena Bonner’s greyscale costume and Holly Sliwka’s Wig and Make-Up design, the play had an old-timey other worldly effect that was an outstanding achievement of stage design and really made the play a seamless jump from screen to stage. I was wondering why the audience sitting in the onstage Splatter Zones were given boiler suits and hairnets to wear… until Act Two. Special mention is given to the design team for the effective use of greyscale blood. Such fun!

Night of the Living Dead Live is a hilarious, creepy, loving tribute to George A. Romero’s iconic 1968 film boasting wonderful performances, a macabre design and creative special effects. Fans of the original film, horror and comedy will love this play, it hits all the right notes (especially during one of the multiple endings). Grab a seat in or out of the Splatter Zones at The Pleasance and enjoy a fun night out at Night of the Living Dead Live.

Reviewed by Stuart James
Photo: Claire Bilyard

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