Edinburgh Fringe 2018
‘There may be many spooky stage productions around… but few will approach the level of this one’ (New York Times). Urban Death presents vignettes of brutal horror mixed with gallows humour designed to shock, delight, and frighten. These unflinching performances will sear images into your brain and refuse to let go. Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group is based in Los Angeles and has been performing Urban Death to sell-out audiences for 13 years. They are now bringing their signature show to Edinburgh to share their monsters with the world. ‘A triumph in every sense.’ ***** (British Theatre Guide).
It is a rare Fringe indeed when you come away knowing you have seen a show you will never forget. Urban Death ticks that box with a rusty nail ripping right through the paper.
I had already previously met some of the members of Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group earlier in the month. Hailing from LA and being one of the world’s leading ensembles at keeping the niche genre of ‘Grand Guignol’ alive they may look an unusual bunch but struck me as being really nice people. Knowing this actually made watching the show all the more difficult, not least because of the frequent full-frontal nudity and sexual parodies.
The hype around this show is actually less than it delivers. For an hour your senses and sensibilities are assaulted to the edge of acceptability and beyond. When boundaries are crossed you begin to realise that your limits are subjective and nothing is being mocked. There may be a lot of comedy in some of the vignettes, but it is deadly serious in execution. Challenging? You bet your life.
There is no plot. That is not what this show is about. You see the better part of 100 different moments, none of them linked to any of the others. If I had to sum it up, you are basically sitting in a stationary ghost train where the most extreme moments from the horror genre flash before your eyes. It’s like watching a stage version of all the best bits of the trailers from every ghost, ghoul, slasher and exploitation movie ever made. It is definitely NOT for children. Neither is it for your parents. If it’s for your friends, you have some very sick acquaintances.
The house tonight is full. Many of the houses have been full. Frankly, every performance of this should have been sold out way in advance. It requires the relatively small space of the 60-seater it has. If it was in a much larger space, you would lose the direct attack it puts right before you. The eerie ambient music playing as we enter sets the scene. It almost feels like you’re about to board a notorious rollercoaster. You know you are going to be safe, but there is a palpable sense of fear and anticipation. Sitting in the front row certainly helped!
The room is plunged into total darkness. It takes some time to adjust to the fact the only guides available to the cast to hit their marks are tiny dim dots on the floor. There are so many brief pieces to Urban Death it would be impossible to recall them all, and making notes in this situation would have been impossible anyway. I can say that none of them fail. All have a point, either depressing, shocking, disgusting, sick or terrifying. None of them use quantifiable dialogue – only sounds.
An aristocrat dances, twirling around the body of his dead bride. A giant of a man with a pig’s head sharpens knives to cut up the naked man in front of him. A screaming adult baby breastfeeds. A couple are frozen in a disturbing tableau of an ad-man’s idea of love as the ghost of an ex-lover slowly approaches in torment. A woman in agony, her face covered in blood, grins for a selfie. In a scary homage to the 1962 cult movie ‘Carnival Of Souls’, a flapper girl Charlestons at high speed, her face a nightmarish smear of clown pancake and her eyes reflecting terror. There is an hilarious but revolting birth scene. A child in a rabbit onesie chews on a condom. Some of these are literally seconds long. None of them last more than two minutes. I find myself wondering what the backstage area must look like. I envision a huge pile of discarded costumes floating in a sea of wet wipes and paper towels.
However, besides all this, there are two areas Urban Death covers that raises it above entertainment. Firstly, and the lesser of the two, is the jaw-dropping way it uses the pitch darkness and the disorientation it provides to really play with our minds. Characters miraculously suddenly fly up into the air. I actually scream when a wraith who had been standing motionless in a thunderstorm at the back of the stage is suddenly right in front of me. An alien abduction scene makes the audience gasp. It is the way the company have delivered it that makes it work so well. You JUST see things in the darkness and they are in shadow enough to be more disturbing than if they were in the light AND it covers up the explanation of how they do it.
The more difficult of the groundbreaking methods they employ is to confront the deeply disturbing and uncomfortable; things that should never be used for entertainment and could very easily be repugnant. It is a credit to the cast and director that when they walk this minefield they lead us through without any explosions. Christ at the moment of death, a family photo that turns into a clear indication of child sexual abuse and – most painful of all – two cowering naked women being pulled apart by a Gestapo guard in a gas mask. Yes, these moments are totally unsuitable for entertainment. But this is the point; Urban Death has transcended that constraint. At no point are these matters made palatable or cheapened. You are disgusted and horrified and that is exactly what you should be. If it is being done to shock you, good. It should shock you. These performers are so skilled and committed, it is safe to trust them with this subject matter. You question yourself – should things of this nature ever be shown? There are plays aplenty dealing with the subject but here you just see what should not be seen, without any requirement to internally visualise what is at the core. This is a diversion from horror as entertainment. This is horror as a psychological statement. In a similar way to Red Bastard (sadly absent from this year’s Fringe), you have to confront your own opinions and ask yourself why you hold them. There is nothing hinting at a Nietzschean amorality in this. In fact, I feel they are aiming at the opposite – you have to confront your apathy.
Urban Death is to the stage what Eraserhead is to the movies. At the end, you feel your head has been turned 360 degrees. You leave uncertain, stunned, confused and slightly breathless. It’s like you’ve been beaten up without any physical pain.
This piece is a game-changer and, frankly, a life-changer.