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Immersive zombie-show performers accuse producer of safety failings and £60k unpaid wages

Scene from Variant 31. Photos: Ali Wright
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Actors from failed immersive zombie show Variant 31 have accused organisers of putting them at risk from a catalogue of health and safety issues they allege resulted in respiratory issues and injuries inflicted by audience members.

The accusations come as they pursue the producer for more than £60,000 in unpaid wages.

The performers have likened the Variant 31 venue to a “building site”, with mould and fungus growing in the backstage areas. They also claim nails sticking out of its walls posed a risk of “impalement” to performers expected to throw themselves around in the dark space.

It is understood Equity is assisting about 60 actors with complaints against the production, including claims they are all owed about £1,000 following the production’s early closure in November last year. This is the payment sum calculated for rehearsals and the last week of performances.

Variant 31 review at Space 18, London – ‘immersive zombie adventure delivers the thrills’

The Stage has spoken to a number of performers involved in the production, who claim:

  • Performers did not have a run-through on site before opening, and were expected to do their first show not knowing the space or its hazards.
  • The lack of CCTV on site left performers feeling vulnerable.
  • Security hired to work on the show had no experience with immersive theatre, and did not adequately deal with bad audience behaviour.
  • Cast members had to fend off theatregoers who assaulted and abused them.
  • Performers were left with respiratory problems because of the amount of dust in the venue – there are claims two had hospital treatment, for debris in the blood and debris in the lungs.
  • Shows were cancelled at the last minute and with no warning, leaving performers and audiences out of pocket.
  • Actors who refused to work on the site due to safety concerns claim they were sacked, until Equity intervened.

The show’s producer disputes some of these claims (see below).

One actor told The Stage: “The first ever performance we did was for family and friends. We were thrown into the space and expected to do a lot of throwing ourselves about in a space that we had never worked in. It was ridiculous.”

They added: “There were nails in the walls and giant metal shelf racks. It was dark and smoky, and yet you were throwing yourselves into walls and could easily get impaled. It was a massive hazard.”

The actor added that fellow cast members had been “assaulted by guests”, sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally, and described the security team as “incompetent”.

“I am furious. Everything that could go wrong, did. It was a fucking nightmare,” the actor said.

Another added that the building used to stage the show was “derelict before we went in and very little was done to change that”.

“Every day you went in there was a good inch of dust on all surfaces. We were expected to roll about in that, and a few ended up in hospital with actual stuff in their lungs,” the performer claimed.

The actor also said audiences came into the space in “god mode”.

“I had guests trying to physically lash out at me, I had to drop my character and tell them what the boundaries were. But a lot of people in the show were kids on their first jobs and just out of training, who didn’t know what to do,” he said, adding: “It became obvious security had no idea what they were doing, and they had not handled immersive theatre before.”

The Stage has also heard from audience members who claim to be owed hundreds of pounds in refunds for shows that were cancelled.

The producer responds

Variant 31 producer Dalton Dale confirmed to The Stage that actors involved in the show were owed money, adding that the company behind the production – Zombie Shows London Ltd – was now in administration.

He blamed the show closing early, with “insufficient contingency” and no ticket sales, for the fact the company had been unable to “meet some liabilities that fell due after the unexpected closure”.

He confirmed that the administrator would work to ensure payments could be made.

Dale stressed that health and safety had been of “paramount concern”.

He said there were “professional security officers at every exit, stairwell, lobby and key points within the game” and pointed to a “strict protocol” that meant security were able to diffuse situations quickly. He added that actors had access to walkie-talkies and other equipment to keep them safe.

Regarding the venue itself, he said Equity had inspected the site and added: “We passed every single inspection and we always cleared for performances.” He revealed further site visits had been made by the local council and the fire service.

He admitted there was mould in some areas of the site, but said these areas were off-limits. He added that in-house cleaners were employed to eliminate “dust and debris” and said he was not aware of anyone needing treatment for respiratory issues.

Photo shared with The Stage allegedly showing part of a backstage area used by actors in Variant 31

Dale denied there were nails protruding from walls and questioned the way some performers conducted themselves in the space, despite techniques he claims were taught to them during rehearsals to fall safely.

“We saw, much to our dismay, a complete disregard for the techniques taught, including how to safely fall and die,” he said, adding: “Each of these reckless actions put their own safety and the safety of those around them at risk, and were dealt with using disciplinary action.”

Dale acknowledged that theatregoers were due refunds from cancelled shows and said the process had been completed on January 6. He said some people had not received refunds and he was now launching an investigation with the company’s card processor to find out why.

Dale thanked Equity for its support during the show, and said it was creating an in-house agreement with the union for future productions.

Charlotte Bence, from Equity, confirmed the union was assisting more than 50 performers, and added: “Any Equity member that has not yet been in touch with the union about issues related to this show should contact us as soon as possible.”

Timeline

October 2018
Variant 31 is announced, described as featuring “parkour, aerial acrobats and combat scenes” featuring more than 100 performers.

February 2019
Further plans for Space 18 – due to host Variant 31 – are announced. They include 200 rooms set across 35 floors, five bars and a nightclub.

March 2019
The opening of the show is postponed, by four months, because the production is not ready.

September 2019
The official opening night of the show is postponed again. Scheduled to open on September 13, it announces the new opening night “at some point in October”.

October 2019
Audience members are evicted for physically abusing staff. The well-being of performers in immersive shows is once again under scrutiny. No new opening date is announced.

November 2019
Variant 31 announces early closure as its producers grapple with “ongoing technical issues”. Producer Dalton Dale announces a new production, Chapter 2, set to open in March.

Immersive zombie show Variant 31 closes as producers grapple with technical issues

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