The undead were on the move. Youthful zombies in shredded clothing, with dark-shadowed eyes and a lolling gait shuffled around the audience members, groaning creepily. This 'welcoming party' set the tone for what was to come: a performance of Night Of The Living Dead for Kids, with lashings of strawberry string.
Skeptics might think that the bloody gore and terror of seminal zombie movie NOTLD wouldn't transfer well to a play starring teenagers and performed to their friends and families. And while I wouldn't recommend it to under-10s, as director, soundman and drama teacher Chris Lambert, who adapted the film script for the stage, said: "The students like being able to scare grown-ups." And they're rather good at it, too.
The play opens as Barbara (Erin Tingle) and her brother Johnny (Anthony Thompson) take the long drive into the country to visit their father's grave, only to stumble upon a zombie apocalypse in the making. With Johnny lost to the zombie's clutches, Barbara is pursued to an abandoned house, where she stumbles across the play's hero-figure, Ben (Jack Winstanley), sheltering with the combative Harry (drama teacher Mr Neill), his wife Helen (Amy Rushent), their daughter Karen (Katie Preece) and couple Judy and Tom (Nicole Carslake and Matthew Smith). The tension is ratcheted up with clever use of sound, lights, and intersecting TV and radio news reports (with an entertaining turn from Adrian Rodriguez as the gung-ho zombie-killing expert McClelland), as the plague spreads and the undead slowly surround the house.
Genuinely chilling at points, as zombies shuffled among the audience, explosions shook us and a creepy soundtrack filled the theatre, Night of The Living Dead for Kids remained faithful to the film's pessimistic ending - with a quirky twist you'll just have to see for yourself. And as I drove home in the evening gloom, rain lashing on the windscreen, I glanced in my rearview mirror and tried to put thoughts of shuffling ghouls out of my mind...
The production is at New Greenham Arts Auditorium, Newbury, on Thursday and South Street Arts Centre, Reading, on Friday. The Reading show is sold out.
Book tickets for the New Greenham Arts in Newbury show on Thursday night by calling 01635 522 733.