Review By Rosie Niven
With mental illness rising at an alarming rate, and a culture that refuses to normalise conversations around mental health, how can we support young people to tell us when they feel like something’s wrong? Jennifer A. Kokai and Olivia Kokai-Means’ Zombie Thoughts may have found a solution.
Zombie Thoughts is a choose-your-own-adventure set up like a video game. Throughout the show, the audience are given a number of choices that might dictate that game play: What special item should this character get? Should the character fight the bats or try to leave the cave? This interaction is facilitated through the use of sounds, where audience members can clap their hands, stomp their feet, or yee haw to vote for the answer they’d prefer. The two avatars, Sam and Pig, are played with gusto and vibrancy by Jose Talite and Emma O’Sullivan, and take us on an exciting journey through levels of a game. The game itself is played by Monica Sayers, who captures the audience with her wondrous voice and engaging physicality. Director Warwick Doddrell has created a powerful team that works together to tell a story that kids were excited to participate in that was educating them about important themes as well.
The design team (Isabella Andronos, Jasmine Rizk, David Bergman, Xing Lin and Jessie Singh) all work cohesively to stimulate the imagination, plunging the audience right into the heart of a video game. From panels that light up when the players jump on them, to secret pockets in the set that zombie hands come out of, to eye-catching projections reminiscent of a nostalgic Game Boy game. Each moment is crafted to maintain the magic, with one particular moment capturing the audience - bubbles fell from the ceiling and spread across the audience, and people were waving their arms around to catch one. It’s a visual delight from start to finish.
The show touches on some challenging themes in a delightful and accessible way. One of the characters, Sam, deals with debilitating panic attacks that stop him in his tracks and take his breath away. Sam’s panic attack is explained to the audience in easy to understand terms, and tactics to manage them are offered in a practical way: together, the audience breathed in with Sam, then blew out slowly as if they were blowing bubbles. Embodying these techniques gave the audience a simple and non-confronting way to identify these own feelings within their body and practice calming responses with a group. Mental health concepts are personified through things such as zombies, bats and heights, all concrete things that children can understand.
While it’s marketed as a show for children, the themes will resonate at any age. More than half of the audience I was in was adults, who were all as actively engaged as the children they came with, clapping and stomping and yee hawing throughout the show. Zombie Thoughts is now closed, but I hope that the team behind this brilliant production brings it back so that more children (and everyone, really) get a chance to see something like this. I can’t wait to see Sam and Pig fight another day!
Image Credit: Noni Carroll