A Zombie movie that has brains

Cert 12a | By Simon Thomson
Three stars

BRAD Pitt’s latest movie, World War Z, is a surprisingly satisfying globe-hopping adventure, that doesn’t lack brains.

Zombies have been done to death. Over the last decade there have been a handful of great zombie movies, and a slew of inferior, often terrible, imitations. Just when we must be approaching saturation point, World War Z comes along, offering the arresting images and global scope that only a big Hollywood budget can provide, but also providing an imaginative new spin on the genre.

While the ant-like swarming behaviour of the zombies is a terrifying innovation, this is not a horror film, more a slow-paced suspense thriller, punctuated with frenetic bursts of action. Indeed the scariest part of the film is in the opening moments when the screen fills with the hollowed-out visage of a man devoid of all humanity, subsisting only on the suffering of others. Yes, Piers Morgan has a cameo. The obligatory montage of news stories from around the globe also shows that dolphins are dying, people are getting SARS, and the world is basically a great big mess. So it is no surprise when a family car journey rapidly descends into chaos, as the zombie apocalypse consumes downtown Philadelphia, (played ably here by Glasgow’s George Square).

Pitt is proficient as Gerry Lane, the UN investigator seeking a cure to the zombie pandemic. Though he is never more than a standard issue hero, he carries the audience with him. In a script that is constantly on the move, most other parts are effectively cameos, but David Morse makes a great – albeit fleeting – impression as a derelict CIA agent, and Peter Capaldi is unnervingly nice as a World Health Organisation doctor.

The film has its problems. There’s a thin line between teasing things out for maximum tension and being boring, and in World War Z it’s too often misjudged, but the worst part of the film is its manipulative emotional core. Gerry’s wife and children are essentially a plot device, forcing a devoted family man to go off on mission from which he may very well not return, but their neediness and one-dimensionality make you wish the zombies were faster.

The idea of the UN riding to the rescue will cause outrage among New World Order conspiracy theorists, but while World War Z’s underlying message – that we should look after the environment, and accept that there is more that unites us than divides us – is undoubtedly hokey, it’s probably right.

World War Z is a zombie movie with substance. Tuck in.

The Donmar | By Steve Dinneen
Three stars

THE recent run of Conor McPherson’s The Weir at the Donmar is followed by his brand new play The Night Alive; another story that unfurls among the Irish underclasses.

It begins with down-on-his-luck odd-job man Tommy carrying an even further down-on-her-luck young woman into his squalid bedsit. The woman, Aimee, has been on the receiving end of a beating from her violent ex-partner (a terrifying, Begbie-esque performance by Brian Gleeson). The next 40 minutes consist largely of rapid-fire but meandering Dublin banter, with little in the way of narrative drive. Ciaran Hinds’ timing is impeccable as the jaded huckster Tommy but he is lumbered with all the heavy-lifting: his is the only character that feels fleshed out; Aimee and Tommy’s nice-but-dim best friend Doc are just satellites around his sizable stage presence.

The whole thing turns on a six-pence when Aimee’s past catches up with her. An act of senseless violence – sickening in its brutal depiction – ushers in a period of unrelenting bleakness. The harrowing events are broken up by some welcome – and fascinating – philosophical vignettes, but these feel under-explored.

The Night Alive is very well – sometimes brilliantly – acted but McPherson’s handling of his characters at times feels unnecessarily spiteful. There is a shadow of bitter-sweet redemption at the play’s finale, but it’s too little, too late to erase the slightly sour taste.

The Olivier | By Martin Belk
Four stars

FOR The National’s adaptation of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner, the ensemble cast – including Marianne Jean-Baptist (Sister Margaret), Sharon D Clarke (Odessa), and Lucian Msamati (Luke) – is joined by the triumphant London Community Gospel Choir. They work together impeccably, the music lighting up the Harlem storefront where the play is set. Director Rufus Norris stays true to the script, gratefully free of gimmick in a polished, well performed production. Even the jarring ring of a mobile phone couldn’t derail the cast — Msamati and Eric Kofi Abrefa handled it with perfect poise.

The play tells the story of teenager David (Abrefa) as he gradually parts with the religion that has been both a comfort and an impediment. Iain MacNeil’s two-tier Harlem set design is ingenious in its simplicity, placing the harmony of the church literally above the domestic wranglings of David’s home.

The only problem is the over-emphasis of humour in Cecilia Noble’s Sister Moore. Noble becomes a showboat, a Sister Act Whoopi Goldberg parody, encouraging the audience to laugh at, instead of with, the embattled nun.

This aside, though, Baldwin, Norris and the cast deserve plenty of praise.

Park Theatre | By Alex Dymoke
Two stars

IF YOU’D asked me before May of this year whether London needed another theatre, I would have marched to my computer, printed off the thousand press releases for the thousand plays opening next month, thudded them down at your feet before shouting in your face, “you tell me – does it look like we need another theatre?”

That was before Finsbury Park’s Park Theatre opened with a quality production of These Shining Lives in the main auditorium, followed by a triumphant small scale production of Yellow Face in the studio downstairs.

I had high hopes, then, for their latest: Jessica Swale’s adaptation of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 18th century society classic The School for Scandal. It did not, however, continue the run of good form. Despite a strong start and some well-performed musical interludes, the production begins to sag around half an hour before the interval and fails to pick up the pace at any point en route to the damp squib denouement.

All the performances are good – a few, including Dan Gosling as aerated aristo Sir Peter and Belinda Lang as the supercilious Lady Sneerwell, are excellent – but the pantomime comedy is not staged imaginatively enough to keep us laughing.

A scandalously dull adaptation.