REVIEW: Play Me Deadly (Rebels and Robots)

Leisha Ward Knox as Vampira

B-Theatre Fun: So bad its good [by James Wenley]

Leisha Ward Knox as Vampira

Bela Lugosi’s career was rock bottom by the time he was working with infamously bad film director Ed Wood. After gaining success as Dracula in the 1930 film, Lugosi became a regular in horror films. By the 1950s however, he was washed up and irrelevant until Ed Wood bought him out of obscurity to star in his low budget B movies. Bela Lugosi’s death, of a heart attack aged 73, did not stop Ed Wood from having him star in one of his movies one more time – using only one day’s worth of silent test footage and a body double, Bela Lugosi would receive top billing for science fiction shlock Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Or so history records. This week at the Basement Studio, Play me Deadly tells its own ‘B-Theatre’ version about what really was behind Lugosi’s death, and the sinister plan behind the film Plan 9 from Outer Space.

The first full length play by Louis Mendola (it zips along at just under an hour), it shamelessly embraces the mood, clichés and outrageously unbelievable plots of the “bad” B-Movie film.  Bela Lugosi has turned up dead – bad news for Private Detective Richard Marlowe (Sam Bunkall, proving a go to actor for American accents after his work in Glorious) who has been trying to track the reclusive actor down. A flashback brings us to the start of the case, where he is employed by Lugosi’s wife Olga (Leisha Ward-Knox, brilliantly over-acting) to find him. More flashbacks and montages follow as an outlandish conspiracy emerges, and we meet a strange collection of characters including angora loving director Ed Wood (Roberto Nascimento), bizarre sex symbol Vampira (Leisha), film star Natalie Wood (Leisha) and jumpsuit wearing Russian Leon Theremin, the creator of the iconic electronic instrument the theremin, which is played without being touched.

A live theremin is played onstage by Glyn Evans as we enter the Basement Studio. It’s entrancing to watch as he moves and pulses his hands in mid-air, and a strange assortment of sounds emerge from the peculiar looking device. As an observer it’s difficult to work out the coloration, but it seems as he moves his hands further away from the instrument it becomes deeper. Evans even manages to throw a distorted ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ into the preshow mix. Sharply suited, he looks the part, and the live theremin soundtrack is a very special element of the play, doing much to evoke the atmosphere of the sci-fi genre of the 50s. He returns to stage as the mute servant of Leisha’s Leon Theremin, the instrument revealed to have mind-control powers on the characters, who are hypnotized by its sound.

Mendola’s writing is witty and sardonic, with many one liners gifted especially to the Private Detective (“More questions without answers – my least favourite questions”). Thomas Sainsbury’s direction is apparent, finding extra physical and vocal humour with the actors.  

The stage set, designed by Scott Satherly, suggests a film set, the facades made out of cardboard.

In this tale, fiction is stranger than truth, but only slightly. Clearly fascinated by the era, the team have cleverly used real characters and events that are already a bit strange (the stories of Ed Wood and Vampira for instance, are quite unbelieavable  –  look them up!), and fashioned an alternate history. There’s lot for fans and those in the know to enjoy – such as a reference to Wood’s later pornographic filmography.

You can see the big reveal coming a mile away, but It ends when the full conspiracy is revealed to the detective, but there was certainly scope for the story to continue, and I was enjoying it so much that I wished it did. It’s such an interesting genre and era that it felt like there was more that could have been explored – the play (as it currently is) a noir/mystery in the first half, which, without spoiling the ending, could lead into a full sci-fi in a second half, the survival of our planet at stake. Until the sequel then, it’s a fun romp through the tropes of the genre, embracing the ‘so bad its good’ appeal.

Play me Deadly is presented by Rebels and Robots and plays at the Basement Studio until 4th March. More details at The Basement.

SEE ALSO: Theatreview review by Stephen Austin

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