Subsist at Edinburgh Fringe 2019: dull, tired and poorly acted cliche-fest

“forty one, elephant, forty two, elephant, forty three, elephant…..”

That’s me, counting to my sixth minute in Subsist, a show so relentlessly dull it manages to warp the space-time continuum, turning one hour into three. It would almost be comical if it wasn’t so painful.

Handily assembling every zombie-movie cliché ever written into a single document, JD Henshaw’s script (which is now approaching 10 years of age) is a laughably derivative slice of sub-standard post-apocalyptic nonsense. Opening with four characters running into the darkened room screaming (it’s kind of annoying, honestly), it’s soon revealed that there’s been a zombie apocalypse and they’ve barricaded themselves inside an abandoned building. If they keep themselves quiet and keep the lights off, they’ll be safe – of course they’ll use soon be using torches and start going outside.

We get an almost constant stream of eye-rolling tropes: the innocent woman with something to hide; the angsty teenager; the strong, pragmatic man who’s broken inside; the masculine female action-hero. There is no character development. We have to kill zombies by destroying the brains! Who could have guessed the new arrival hiding his arm had been bitten all along? Shock! Horror! Yawn.

We’re also given some truly fantastic lines, such as ‘the air smelled of treacle and death’ that make me fight to keep in a laugh. My favourite crap script technique manages to sneak in somewhere: have absolutely no build-up to an argument then just have the angry character scream ‘fuck’ in front of every second word to simulate intensity. You actually want to fight this script, it’s so irritating.

Complementing the unbearable writing is some truly ripe acting that made me grip the chair in lieu of making a grimace. Although one or two performances are ok (dare I say it, maybe even good), at least two of the actors in the script butcher every line and mannerism such that this feels like a school play. I couldn’t find the names of anyone involved, so I can’t actually say who, but you don’t so much feel annoyed at Subsist than feel sorry for its cast who are having to do this to themselves day in and day out. All this sort of rubbishness is complemented by half-arsed lighting design that almost always feels too light or too dark, and from the wrong angle.

Overall, I kept expecting something to happen – or at least for the dialogue to become interesting – but the piece just drones on and on, not switching gears for one second. That’s why, eventually, I had to resort to literally counting in my head, just to give myself the satisfaction of knowing when I was five minutes closer to being able to leave. I would’ve walked out, but the hope that some last-minute craziness would change my opinion on the show and stop me from giving it this sort of annoying, obnoxious review kept me from going. Honestly, I really don’t want to be giving amateur productions this sort of shakedown, because I really don’t want to discourage anyone from doing something they’re just getting started in, but I can’t lie and pretend I enjoyed Subsist or even thought it was OK.

I’m aware that, in previous years, this show has been given 4 and even 5-star reviews. I have to say that, unless this iteration is extremely different from the one in 2011, I cannot for the life of me understand why. Perhaps its because the apocalypse-survival tropes were not so seasoned back then, but I doubt it – zombie flicks have been around since well before the 21st century. Maybe I’ve missed something because, to me, this production honestly felt like some horror/fantasy nerds with no writing or acting experience decided to write and perform a play about the apocalypse based on some dull cultural property like The Walking Dead.

Laughably given an 18+ guideline on the Fringe website, Subsist is a vanilla, familiar horror-thriller that threatens to send its audience to sleep with a tired script and amateurish performances. I have nothing really else to say.


James is a postgraduate law student at LSE, and London Student's Chief Arts Editor/Film Editor. He wants you to know that Christopher Nolan is overrated.

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