In horror, you can’t keep a good corpse down, it would seem. It is ninety years since HP Lovecraft, who would have celebrated his 122nd birthday this week, wrote the short story Herbert West – Reanimator, the tale of a medical student’s experiments with the recently deceased. Now Herbert West has risen again in a musical, currently running at the George Square Theatre as part of the Edinburgh Fringe.
With the front three rows of the auditorium designated “the splatter zone” and disposable ponchos laid on the seats make it clear what the show will entail, and fortunately the audience are game, donning the unflattering garments in preparation for the hour and twenty minutes that follow.
Directed by Stuart Gordon, and perhaps following the script and visuals of his 1985 film version perhaps too closely, “so begins the tale of Herbert West, the very definition of obsessed…” Finding himself in the class of Doctor Carl Hill of the Miskatonic University, Herbert West finds himself immediately at odds with his tutor, accusing him of plagiarising the work of a former colleague whom West knew before his death.
The field of interest of both was how long the brain would survive after the death of the body, but it is West who has taken their research further, and moving in with fellow student Dan Cain, he continues his experiments in the basement, developing a fluorescent green serum which he claims can restore vitality to the recently deceased. Complications arise when his first test subject is Dan’s cat and the reanimation is witnessed by Dan’s girlfriend Meg Halsey, whose father is Dean of the University.
A musical stands or falls on the strength of its songs, and here unfortunately is the weakest link: while all the cast can hit the notes, though none of the songs are musically demanding, only Rachel Avery’s Meg has a voice that could be described as pleasing, but the lyrics are functional rather than inspired and the music pedestrian, each number in uniform pedestrian style, accompanied by a sole keyboard player.
Another handicap is that the script never seeks to be more than its immediate source, to find something new in the story to make it deeper than the lowest common denominator, albeit now played with full post modern awareness of the ridiculous premise, nor is there any attempt to go back to the original Lovecraft story, to channel the mystery or atmosphere of his work, which was substantially different in format from this work.
Fortunately, this is not a show that is about artistic finesse or breaking new boundaries in theatre, except perhaps in the copious use of fake blood and body parts. From opening scene, blood is sprayed liberally into the auditorium; in an autopsy, Doctor Hill removes a brain from the skull and asks the front row to pass it along. The famous “head in a tray” scene is splendidly recreated, though the biggest laugh of the night belongs to Rufus, a dancing dead cat with a broken spine, conclusion of the most dramatically created scene, the darkened basement chamber lit by a single swinging overhead light as the reanimated cat attacks Dan.
As West and Hill, the enthusiasm of Graham Skipper and Jesse Merlin is infectious, and though Chris McKenna’s Dan is the obligatory straight man against the jokes and blood, he holds his own among the increasing pile of corpses. The late night slot suits the mood, and what better way to finish of a hard days’ Fringing than with a trip to the morgue where the dead are rising?
Re-Animator The Musical continues until Monday 27th August