It’s forty years since Richard O’Brien’s rock and roll sci-fi musical with a cross-dressing twist first hit the stage. A feature film and several generations of new fans later, and The Rocky Horror Show has become one of the best-known musicals in recent history with a dedicated cult following.
“Cult” being the operative word. In many ways, the show is critic-proof, since it’s one of those majestically chaotic and left-of-field spectaculars you either love or loathe, and attend or avoid regardless of reviews. However, this 40th Anniversary tour plays unashamedly for the core fan base – who will love it.
Rocky Horror virgins will have an altogether different experience of the show. It’s a bit like walking into a religious ceremony where everyone around you knows exactly what’s going on and gives the appropriate responses on cue, whilst you’re left scratching your head in bewilderment. Of course, if a religion based on the Rocky Horror Show were dominant, the world would be a safer and saner place.
There are other reasons too that this is a tour that caters best for fanatics. The sound levels aren’t great, as (a perennial problem with rock musicals) despite the use of microphones, the percussion drowns out about 80% of the lyrics, leaving it very hard for non die-hards to follow the tenuous plot. This problem is compounded by the rowdiness of the audience, whose sense of entitlement and ownership of the product on stage extends not just to shouting the lines out, but talking incessantly all the way through as if they’re at a cinema rather than a theatre.
From what we could work out of the plot, it concerns a young engaged couple (Janet and Brad) whose car breaks down. They visit a local spooky castle and ask to use the phone. The master of the house, Frank-N-Furter, and his cast of strange servants, woo the young couple into their surreal lives, which includes the creation of the Adonis-like Rocky. The charmingly anarchic story is held together by a narrator. There’s some excellent design work in evidence, especially Frank-N-Furter’s B-movie laboratory; and the action often segues into some delightfully daft songs, which owe much of their influence to early rock ‘n’ roll, of which by far the best-known is the Time Warp.
Performance-wise, there are a few standouts in this production. Philip Franks is excellent as the narrator, providing wide-eyed gravitas and great comic timing, most especially when ad-libbing responses to audience heckles. Dani Harmer offers solid support as Janet, and makes a nicely observed transition from prim to saucy. It’s Oliver Thornton’s outrageous Frank-N-Furter that draws the most attention, and he is a brilliant lead.
Yet there’s little, if anything, that is new in Thornton’s performance. It’s essentially an excellent impersonation of Tim Curry doing the same part four decades ago. Presumably he has been directed to perform in that way in order to meet the audience’s expectations as how the character is to be played, but he certainly isn’t allowed to bring anything approaching a new interpretation to it. The actor playing Riff Raff (Kristian Laverscombe), once in costume, bears an uncanny resemblance to Richard O’Brien in the same part.
The endeavours to recreate the work of the original cast rather than attempt a new production from the source material is part of the wider issue of self-indulgence that dogs this production. Whereas Spamalot (also directed by Christopher Luscombe and ironically enough originally starring Tim Curry) felt fresh because it didn’t insist on the actors aping Graham Chapman, John Cleese et al, this Rocky Horror Show is more akin to the painfully unfunny live US cash-in performances of Monty Python in venues such as the Hollywood Bowl, where comic timing is thrown out of the window to allow the obsessives in the audience to provide every punchline and strip great material bare of humour. It’s a far cry from the fresh, funny and daring little show that burst onto the scene in the 1970s. Now, in a different century, it would have been wonderful to see it revisited with new ideas, and to pander instead to the devotees is a wasted opportunity.
In short, this tour of the Rocky Horror Show will delight established fans and bring people who don’t normally visit the theatre flocking through their doors. For the outsider, both consequences may hamper the enjoyment of the show.