THEATRE REVIEW: Biohazard The Stage

Biohazard The Stage

As previously documented, my long-standing relationship with Resident Evil (or Biohazard, to give its original Japanese title) has been somewhat tortured of late. Therefore, the prospect of going to see a stage adaptation of the franchise (having already spun-off into films, books, comics, and theme park interactive experiences) was met more with caution than excitement, but still a morbid curiosity. What form would it take? How would it work? Would it be scary? Embarrassing? Hilarious? Awful? Given that it tied in nicely with a trip to Tokyo and I would be accompanied by a friend with a similar take on all things Resident Evil, how could I not go?

Performed at Roppongi’s swish, new EX Theater, with a short run in late October/early November, Biohazard The Stage (a glorious linguistic misfire of a name) is set sometime between the events of RE5 and RE6, in which a virus outbreak turns the staff and faculty of an Australian university into zombies and fan “favourites” Chris Redfield, Rebecca Chambers and Piers Nivans have to contain it. The plot devised by Capcom is not based on any one game, but follows the same predictable narrative beats that would make it fit neatly amongst the official chapters. As such, it won’t surprise anyone who has played any of the games (and God help you if you see this without any prior experience), or probably anyone who has encountered a work of fiction for that matter. Will the scientists with the wonky tie harbour a dark secret? Will the bleach blonde guy in the red shirt turn out to be a bit of a bad’un? Will the mysterious stranger with the leather jacket hold the key to everything?

Perhaps this is more a ‘greatest hits’ package, assembling these well-worn elements (and fairly cohesively) as a nod to the fans. And there is certainly fan service on offer, notably flashbacks to RE0 and RE1, as well as appearances from those infamous door animations, a rocket launcher and even a First Aid Spray (no typewriters or item chests that I can recall though). These winky references are to be expected, and as cringe-inducing as they may be, they made me smile, in a chucklesome “oh, you went there, didn’t you” kind of way. The same can be said of the staging, a large shifting multi-tiered set onto which are projected different foregrounds and backdrops to change location. And yet, these projections are low-resolution and/or created with crummy CG, unintentionally mimicking the basic polygon models and basic textures of the original game. It’s a shame though that the key thing lost in its translation to the stage is the horror. What little blood and gore and gruesomeness there is in Biohazard The Stage is largely confined to pre-recorded video, nothing especially scary happens, and the zombies are disappointingly unthreatening. It doesn’t help that the action gets repetitive quickly, with scene after scene of our heroes darting into a new location, popping some caps, fisting some cuffs (in a reminder to just how much the games have been influenced by the films, there is an awful lot of kicking and hand-to-hand combat), and making their way to point B. But at least the actors are no slouches in that department, maintaining an impressive energy level throughout.

In fact, for all the inherent silliness, the cast are completely committed to the premise, taking everything very seriously, as if a stage adaptation of a video game franchise is just as legitimate as Pinter or Beckett, or at the very least a jukebox musical. And why not? That a stage version of Phoenix Wright was playing down the road suggests this wasn’t as novel a proposition as it first appeared. Though the principals are mostly culled from TV dramas and idol groups, Sonny Chiba (best known in the West for the Street Fighter – not that one – movies, and Kill Bill) lends the production a bit of emotional heft and gravitas, though the best character is the impossibly-monikered Posh Brown, a jittery security guard whose comic relief antics, while played broad, break the po-faced earnestness elsewhere. During the interval, my friend and I joked that what it really needed was a musical number, and lo and behold, the second half commences with a big zombie scuffle choreographed to a hi-NRG dance-pop tune. There are some other fun stage effects and ideas too – the backstory for the Umbrella corporation features actual umbrellas twirling on stage, text messages are projected onto the backdrop, a genetic mutation happens with the aid of simple but effective costume trickery.

So, for better and for worse, Biohazard The Stage is a faithful adaptation of the Resident Evil games as they currently exist. It is closer to the games than the live-action films in execution, and while it plays like one long cut-scene, it’s at least more interesting than the straight-to-DVD CG offerings. Faint praise, maybe, and there’s certainly nothing there for anyone but the most dedicated fans, but despite feeling burned out by all things bio-weaponry, it was not the abomination it could have been.

A DVD release is due in January with English subtitles, but I imagine much would be lost removed from the live setting (where at least there is something fascinating about experiencing it in the flesh with an audience). Viewed through a screen, I can see it becoming especially tedious. One for only the most hardcore/foolish (delete where applicable) Resident Evil enthusiast.

THEATRE REVIEW: The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon

Arriving on the crest of a wave of rave reviews, Broadway box-office records, and multiple awards, you could say expectations for The Book of Mormon’s almighty arrival in London’s West End were pretty darn high. But The Book of Mormon’s better than that. It’s not a case of ‘believing the hype’, rather it is a far more rounded and satisfying show than empty hyperbole suggests. All this hollow clamour saying it’s something life-changing, groundbreaking, earth-shattering, or epoch-defining ultimately does it a great disservice. Simply put, The Book of Mormon is a very funny, very entertaining, very smart, very good musical indeed.

It’s a fairly straightforward tale of two mismatched Mormon missionaries, model devotee Elder Price (Gavin Creel) and naïve dork Elder Cunningham (Jared Gertner), dispatched to northern Uganda to convert the locals, only to encounter indifference, hostility, poverty, disease and a crazed General. There’s love, there’s hate, beliefs are challenged, friendships are forged, undone and reconciled – everything you might want from a big flashy stage show, plus a potted history of Mormonism to boot.

In fact, anyone expecting The Book of Mormon to break with musical convention clearly aren’t familiar with the previous work of Trey Parker and Matt Stone (joining forces with Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez). Sure, it subverts the format, and takes pop shots at neighbouring shows (notably The Lion King), but it celebrates it too, offering the scene-setting song, the down-on-their-luck ballad, the hopeful ‘somewhere else far from here’-number et al. And, just as with South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut and Team America: World Police, the songs are excellent in their own right, regardless of the foul language contained within, properly propelling the story and developing character. And from a technical standpoint, the staging, sets, design, costumes and scene changes too are often cleverly self-aware but top-notch too. It also succeeds in solving that old problem cynics have with musicals (and I’d often consider myself one of them) – people breaking into song for no good reason. The Book of Mormon pokes and plays with third-world African stereotypes, where everyone chants and cheers and raises their hands skyward with the slightest provocation, but there is also something oddly appropriate about all singing all dancing Mormons, translating their cheery optimism and grinning enthusiasm convincingly into showtunes and high-kicks.

Similarly, those who consider The Book of Mormon as a mocking attack on the church and its followers have also somewhat missed the point. Parker and Stone have past form here, even a mild obsession – Orgazmo starred Parker as a Mormon who becomes involved in the porn industry, one South Park episode was dedicated to the tale of Joseph Smith, while another revealed it was the correct religion to get you into Heaven. But in all instances, the Mormons all come off as thoroughly decent people, strange, almost anachronistic, outsiders sure, but fairly normal (even the show programme features adverts from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). This translates well to The Book of Mormon, imbuing the show with a sweetness and charm that makes it even more enjoyable. Theirs is not an anti-religion anti-establishment liberal agenda, nor are they equal opportunities offenders, rather their targets are often off-centre. They are more likely to attack hypocrisy or the institutions that allow bad people to do bad things, than the bad people or the bad things themselves. The overall message isn’t that faith is necessarily a bad thing, but no one belief is less ridiculous than any other.

In terms of the West End production, London has lucked out having Creel and Gertner, veterans of the U.S. tour and original Broadway cast respectively, as the leads. Both know the show inside-out, and are an absolute joy to watch, entirely inhabiting their characters, and fully investing them into each and every song. Comparatively, the London cast are naturally less sure of themselves, but time will change that, and they warm up and come into their own as the show goes on (though Stephen Ashfield as repressed district head Mormon Elder McKinley is a bona fide scene-stealer). Alexia Khadime as love interest Nabulungi seems uncertain at first, but by the time her big song comes along, she completely sells it. If we are being picky, a few running gags don’t quit justify the repetition, and some songs just aren’t quite as good as the others, but only by the smallest of margins. And dare I say it, even I found some of the material a wee bit uncomfortable as far as comedy subject matter goes (namely, an awful lot of time dedicated to female circumcision). But none of these points come close to scuppering and souring a wonderful experience overall.

The Book of Mormon would never have been the success it has become had it been the cheap parody or vicious religious roast lesser talents would have created, but the fact that the performances, dialogue, tunes and production are all great is a big part of it too. It zips by at such a pace and has so much fun with it, I could have happily sat through another hour. But I guess the next best thing is to just go see it again, something I am very tempted to do.

THEATRE REVIEW: Re-Animator The Musical

The B-movie-inspired comic-horror musical might not be a sizeable subgenre in the grand catalogue of theatrical entertainment, but it has past form, most notably in the Rocky Horror Show and Little Shop of Horrors, while song-and-dance versions of Plan 9 From Outer Space and, more recently, The Evil Dead, have ensured you can’t keep a high-kicking blood-letting tongue-in-cheek extravaganza buried for long. Re-Animator The Musical follows a similar vein, but with bonus trump cards by not only having the original make-up effects team enlisted for the ghoulish creations on display, but also with the film’s director, Stuart Gordon, directing the stage version too (indeed, the film was originally going to be a theatrical production anyway).

Given the team involved, it’s no surprise that this is an incredibly faithful adaptation of the 1985 cult classic, itself adapted from a story by H.P. Lovecraft. It’s a simple enough set-up, so familiarity with the source material is by no means a prerequisite, but there is a certain pleasure to be taken from seeing just how scenes translate to the stage: a young scientific genius rents the basement of a medical student who becomes embroiled in his research, discovering a formula for bringing the dead back to life. Naturally, nothing goes according to plan.

As with the film, Re-Animator The Musical is played squarely for yuks and laughs, with much of the humour coming from the you scarcely believing what they you’re seeing. This is most clearly realised in the splash zone that occupies the first few rows (something Evil Dead The Musical also incorporated), in which audience members, kitted out in ponchos and bin bags, are subjected to a range of fluids (largely bodily) at different points in the show. The Grand Guignol excess is sold with some impressive special effects – except perhaps the deliberately silly zombie cat hand-puppet) – but the jokes aren’t just relegated to splatstick, as the smart and witty lyrics raise chuckles too.

In fact, barely any dialogue is not performed to music, lending the show more of the feel of an operetta than a straight-up musical (like I know what I’m talking about), mixing the distinctive synth of the film’s main theme with light buoyant piano underscoring the exposition and action. There are distinctive and memorable songs (“She’s Dead, Dan”, “Re-Animatooorrr!” – or whatever the titles are), but this is largely free of showstoppers, which ultimately is in the show’s favour, keeping the play moving at a brisk pace. It also helps having such a game and engaging cast – Graham Skipper excels as Herbert West, tough shoes to fill given its Jeffrey Combs’ signature role. And Jesse Merlin imbues West’s rival Dr. Carl Hill with just the right amount of pomposity, sleaze and menace, while the ‘name’ cast member, George “Norm from Cheers” Wendt, adds warmth to his role amid the carnage and killing (and un-killing).

Much like the original film, there’s no getting away from just how silly it all is though, and there are moments when it threatens to cross into plain old daftness (an inevitably naff, though thankfully short, nod to Michael Jackson’s Thriller for instance). The finale is also somewhat chaotic and messy, and not in a particularly good way, with just too much going on at once to really satisfy as either an action set-piece or story resolution. But that aside, Re-Animator The Musical is goofy, gory fun.

Re-Animator The Musical is at the Assembly George Square Theatre, Edinburgh, until August 27th