Benji Sperring is a director who loves comedy, he’s also a big fan of cult classics too.  When, along with producer Katy Lipson, he brought The Toxic Avenger to London it garnered a great deal of admiration from audiences and critics alike, and now the pair have reunited to bring another cult classic to the stage, based on the 1968 George A. Romero film, Night Of The Living Dead LIVE! is now at The Pleasance Theatre.

“It’s a really, really, good comedy that masquerades as a horror for the first forty minutes.” Benji tells us, “it’s actually a show of two halves, in the first act we redo Night Of The Living Dead as it was as the movie, quite lovingly, with proper horror elements, all the jump scares, and unsettling moments.  Then in the second half it answers the age-old question of ‘what if?’ that always comes up when you’re watching a horror, like why didn’t they just hide in the attic? Or why did they open that door? It takes every element, and says what if they did this, and then we see how this turns out.”

Ashley Samuels Jennifer Harding Marc Pickering Credit Claire Bilyard.
Ashley Samuels Jennifer Harding Marc Pickering Credit Claire Bilyard.

For Benji, agreeing to direct Night Of The Living Dead LIVE! was a no-brainer “I did The Toxic Avenger with Katy, I like things that are a bit off the wall and a bit weird, so Katy has a pile of things that she pushes my way and this was one of them. I read through it and it was so funny on the page, I was in hysterics, and it’s very rare that you are laughing out loud reading a script.”

“Also, I love the original movie, I loved the potential and the artistic image, and it’s been such a fun thing to do, and I love working with Katy she’s superb, she looks after everyone.”

So, can audiences expect something similar to The Toxic Avenger? “Toxic Avenger was taking the idea of comic book and combining it with the musical genre, this isn’t a musical and it’s much more about the horror genre.  So, it’s got a bit more of a narrative, and the first half is a genuine horror, it’s meant to be unsettling, but we treat the original film quite lovingly and then we subvert some of it, and we do some of our own gags on top.”

The combination of horror and comedy make Night Of The Living Dead LIVE! quite a challenge technically, especially with so many weapons on stage, “I don’t like props, I always try and keep it clean and minimal, but this has got so many weapons, blood packs and all sorts, I have to know every prop track and where everything is at any given moment, so that’s been quite tricky. Also, every time we explore a ‘what if’ scenario, the stage resets and it has to be identical each time, so when you’re directing you need to make sure that everything is in a place where it can easily be found and moved.”

Marc Pickering Ashley Samuels Credit Claire Bilyard.
Marc Pickering Ashley Samuels Credit Claire Bilyard.

To make life a little easier for Benji, he’s worked with some of the cast previously, “I’ve worked with Ashley Samuels before in Toxic Avenger, and also Marc Pickering, in fact this is our fourth outing together because we also did How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and The Stripper. It’s really nice to come in to it with a relationship with a couple of the actors, I always like to have someone I’ve worked with before  – it’s like having a rep company you work with, it can be hard to find really good comedy actors, so having good comedy actors that want to come back and work with you is a very nice feeling.”

“Teamwork is really important, building an ensemble from the first day, I spend about half the audition just chatting and getting to know the person, normally I’d ask them to do a musical number but for this one it was a zombie impression I asked for! But that time spent chatting helps you find a group of people who will complement each other on stage. In the room we play games, when you’ve got six funny people, and you really enforce a selfless nature where people can suggest things, and we’ll play with it, that makes for a really collaborative atmosphere.”

This is the first time that Benji has directed a play at The Pleasance, “it’s been brilliant, a real hidden gem that’s only one stop from King’s Cross! Everything has been brilliantly given to us and they’ve been very helpful, when we’ve been setting up some of the more technical aspects they want to make sure it’s safe, but they’ve done everything they can to support us.  They’ve been brilliant I love it here and would come back here in a heartbeat”

Night Of The Living Dead LIVE! is at The Pleasance until 8th June 2019.

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Greg is an award-winning writer with a huge passion for theatre. He has appeared on stage, as well as having directed several plays in his native Scotland. Greg is the founder and editor of Theatre Weekly

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