By day, he was a mild-mannered examinations officer at a school near Wolverhampton. By night, he was a chainsaw-wielding maniac with a soft spot for Elvis numbers. No, that’s not a pitch for a B-movie, but the life of standup comic Rob Kemp. The 39-year-old will spend much of the next month commuting between the West Midlands and Soho theatre in London, shedding the briefcase and tie en route to re-enter the underworld of The Elvis Dead, his rock’n’roll-meets-horror one-man comedy show that became the cult hit of this summer’s Edinburgh fringe.
Hitherto, Kemp had been a specialist in “whimsical” (so he’s told) standup and was “bumping along largely unnoticed”. His only previous show, little seen, was a Dave Gorman-esque comedy lecture about hubris. The Elvis Dead (it’s a retelling of Evil Dead 2 set to the music of Elvis Presley) was dreamed up in conversation with a friend, based on Kemp’s supposed resemblance to horror icon Bruce Campbell. “There was nothing cynical about it,” he says, in case you’re thinking that the Elvis/Evil Dead mashup was a ruthlessly commercial cash-in. “I just wanted to write something that I knew my mates would enjoy.”
At the fringe, the show became “a hurricane with me at the centre of it”, says Kemp – who won a best newcomer nomination at the Edinburgh Comedy awards. “There were only two nights when we had empty seats. People kept asking me, ‘Are you all right?’ Comedians higher up the pecking order would nod and say hello, and I’d be like: ‘Why do you know who I am?’” Not till he was back at his day job weeks later did the success sink in. Save for one moment in Edinburgh when, “I’m not going to lie, I did have a cry: a not-understanding-what’s-happening cry”.
It takes a leap to conflate the sensitive soul weeping at success with the blood-spattered psychopath who hosts The Elvis Dead. But they’re the same: Kemp’s show is a grisly late-night schlock-comedy, less man-at-a-mic than man with a cardboard buzzsaw, channelling Sam Raimi’s 1987 splatterfest. If you don’t know Evil Dead 2 (I didn’t), it’s about a man named Ash, trapped in a cabin in the woods with his own severed hand, ancient demons and the tormented spirit of his slain girlfriend. Why wouldn’t you pair that with the oeuvre of the honey-voiced king of rock’n’roll?
Kemp cites as inspiration the 2002 movie Bubba Ho-Tep, in which Evil Dead star Campbell plays Elvis in a nursing home, battling a reanimated Egyptian mummy. A lifelong horror movie buff, Kemp has “fond memories of coming home late after being out drinking, and my dad being up, watching horror on Channel 4. He did let me and my sister watch films we weren’t supposed to, from quite an early age.”
Pairing Elvis songs with Evil Dead plot points wasn’t as easy as Kemp makes it look. “I assumed It’s Now or Never would be perfect – for when Ash has to read the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis [the book of the dead] and send the spirit back to the nether world.” Well, you would, wouldn’t you? “But I couldn’t make it work at all.” Elsewhere, The Devil in Disguise needed minimal lyrical adjustment. You Were Always on My Arm is a hymn to Ash’s lopped-off hand. Suspicious Minds becomes Wrapped Up in Vines. All are belted out in a creditable Presley croon – Kemp calls the show a “concert” – while gory scenes from the movie unspool on an upstage screen.
But what seals the show’s success is Kemp’s ferocious commitment. Whether singing the songs, or animating the gruesome indignities inflicted on the movie’s hero, he busts a gut for our entertainment. And not just a gut. He broke his hand while previewing at Leicester Comedy festival in February, where he won the best show award. “It happened 10 minutes in, and my hand was buzzing until the end. The comedown from that show was spent in A&E.” In Edinburgh, he took coaching in how to fall safely from the wrestler-turned-comedian Colt Cabana. But still, “I had purple hips for most of August.”
Now, they’ll be purpling again at Soho theatre – which administered a recent reality check to his newfound fame when its official e-flyer credited The Elvis Dead to, er, Ross Kemp. Rob is unlikely to care: he’s too busy plotting tours to Vegas (his dream) or to Comic-Cons and gatherings of horror fans (a palatable alternative). Which brings us to The Elvis Dead’s follow-up. At its curtain call, Kemp pledges a 2018 comeback with – wait for it – “Beatlesjuice”. In person, he downplays that possibility: “I don’t think it would do anyone any favours for me to try and do something the same.”
He isn’t, he says, a musical comedian; the next show will likely return to his standup roots. His commitment to education admin is definitely wobbling. “There are no six-year-olds dreaming of one day being an exams officer,” he says. “And realistically I’m not going to manage another exam season next summer. I hope to be unavailable.”
- The Elvis Dead is at Soho theatre, London, 14-18 and 24-25 November, 8-9 December and 5-6 and 19-20 January 2018. Box office: 020-7478 0100.