Sunday night was an atypical evening for the Fringe. Town was quiet, as if the day’s bad weather and the prospect of work in the morning had scared people off. Heavy rain that had plagued the morning and the afternoon had vaporised into a thick, low-lying fog that coated the underpasses and alleyways in a ghostly, opaque mist. The sodium glare of street lamps and neon shimmer of shop signs spiraled through the smog, creating strange, ethereal shapes that shifted and swayed in the wind. Drifting alone through the dark back-streets that lead to the Grassmarket felt as if I was walking through a place that had borne witness to some great tragedy – a catastrophe that had caused all its inhabitants to move out, or worse, that had caused them to be swallowed into some void from where there could be no return.
Reaching the silent Apex hotel and climbing the stairs to the suite where Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Company were performing their Edinburgh show was no less surreal. I ordered a drink from a deserted bar, walked through deserted hotel corridors, and finally into a darkened room – where, aside from the audience, I am greeted by a single actor – standing absolutely stationary, staring unblinkingly into the crowd in a tattered ballerina costume. Over two large speakers, a suspenseful, creepy ambient track fills the room – providing a foreboding atmosphere of tension. We’re asked to make sure that all light sources are hidden. The soundtrack builds and builds, and then the light goes out. We are left in complete darkness.
When illumination returns, there’s a fleshy pile of bodies stacked on the floor. They begin to writhe around on the ground, eventually rising up to lunge towards us. The audience scream as the lights flick off once more. When they return, a stark-naked man cowers in the spotlight, apple in his mouth and hands tied, whilst a figure in a pig mask sharpens a knife behind him. Some laugh, others gasp, and I hear the phrase ‘this is the most fucked up thing I’ve ever seen’ come from just behind me. And so it continues.
Urban Death is a sort of wordless horror sketch show: each segment lasting between a couple of seconds and around a minute, the show itself lasting an hour – that’s a lot of content. There are bits about witches, cults, ghosts, bdsm, zombies, aliens, nazis, castration, rats, and wizards to name but a few. In between each segment, the room goes completely black, the soundtrack changing to set the scene and leaving audiences to anticipate what horrors will emerge from the shadows next. Sometimes the music accurately predicts genre, tone, and content; other times its an ironic cue to throw us off. It’s always effective.
Throughout, the audience become part of the action – reflecting the mood and commenting on the limits of acceptability. In the darkness, they fear what they’re about to see – nervously talking to each other and predicting what will be standing right in front of them. They laugh, groan, exclaim all sorts of things – fucking hell; I hate this; I love this; this is going too far. I hear some variation of ‘I have never seen a show this fucked up’ every few minutes. They scream, gasp, and clap in elation at some of the most impressive feats on offer. Urban Death is, first and foremost, an exercise in audience provocation – a modern form of the age old grand guignol.
And all the way through – through the nudity and gore and terror – I was thinking ‘this is it’. This is the best show I’ve seen at the Fringe. There’s more imagination in any given five minutes of Urban Death than there is in the entirety of almost every other show. Some parts are hilarious, others are amusing; some bits are terrifying, while others are disturbing; occasionally the sketches are emotionally devastating, or even uplifting. The cast change costumes and make-up again and again, continuously re-emerging as something else. Sometimes they have masks, or sometimes their faces are obscured by hair and low lighting. Sometimes they’re not even people – they’re disembodied heads, or illuminated objects floating through the darkness. Or, occasionally, in the show’s most nerve-wracking moments, they’re disjointed voices in the dark – moving through the audience like a primal, malevolent force – causing screams to erupt from all directions.
There are no special effects in Urban Death per se, but the low lighting in the black box setup allows for some very impressive moments. At one point, a character standing in the dark with a lighter is eclipsed by a sinister figure that just emerges behind them. At another, a cloaked demon suddenly rises to be well over 8 feet tall. At another, a ghostly child flies around the room, bathed in red. Strobe lighting illuminates a shrieking jumpscare; an actor dances with a mask on the back of his head – turning his movements into an unnatural, disturbing frenzy. Again, these are just the moments that jump to mind – time and time again, Urban Death made me think ‘wow, that was clever’ or ‘how did they do that?’
The performers themselves are nothing short of miraculous. Here they are, required to do immensely difficult things – dancing, clowning, staying absolutely still. And yet, they’re simultaneously required to be totally open and raw – often completely naked; often having to issue blood-curdling, bona fide screams that are genuinely uncomfortable to hear. It takes a special kind of person to expose themselves in these ways to a group of strangers – to completely let themselves go into such a primal state for an hour every night.
Assuming that the vignettes change yearly, a herculean imaginative feat, this could well be the Fringe’s next true cult institution. There’s that invigorating, electric sense in the Apex Hotel that we’re watching something crazy, and fantastic, and unique: something filled with imagination and passion. Urban Death is an hour-long thrill-ride, catapulting its audience through the entire spectrum of horror – from the creature feature to extreme torture porn. Not just that, in fact, but the entire range of human emotion too – from primal fear to eclectic joy and everything in-between. It’s not, as you can probably tell, for everyone; but if you’ve read the last 1000 words and thought ‘hey, this sounds like something I might be interested in’ then do yourself a favour and book a ticket. I’ve seen everything this month, from serious theatre to ice dance; site-specific immersive experiences to live music, and this is the highlight. One hour of pulse-pounding, dark, shocking hallucinogenic madness; it’s exhausting, but it’s damn exhilarating.