Writer: Richard O’Brien
Director: Christopher Luscombe
Nearly fifty years after its early experimental inauguration in London in 1973, Richard O’Brien’s cult tribute to science fiction B movies, The Rocky Horror Show romps its way across the UK on a monstrous tour. Basques, suspenders and fishnets at the ready, this is much more than watching a musical for the audience – they are here to be part of the show!
Although never intended, something rather strange happened after the show’s 1975 film adaptation. Its cult status encouraged fans to imitate the characters by dressing like them while watching the film. The tradition continued into its theatrical revival and the rest is musical theatre history. The Rocky Horror Show, you could say, invented a new genre of ‘sing-along’ audience interactive musical experiences. The ‘virgins’ – the name given to those attending their very first performance of the show – become witness to a cult club whereby the ‘rules’ are almost as bizarre as the show. As well as dressing up, audience participation is actively encouraged as fans can interrupt the show by interjecting and shouting out smut and innuendo at various parts of the script. And anyone not out of their chair dancing along to its most famous track, The Time Warp, really doesn’t know the rules to the club!
The plot, for what it is worth, centres around Brad (Ore Oduba) and Janet (Haley Flaherty) who, after suffering a flat tyre, stumble across the castle of mad scientist and transexual Frank-N-Furter (Stephen Webb), his henchman butler Riff Raff (Kristian Lavercombe) and ensemble of strange phantom inhabitants. Brad and Janet, in a new world of sexual fluidity and gender bending freedom, are awakened – as well as Frank-N-Furter’s Frankenstein-like creation Rocky (Ben Westhead) with a god like muscle-toned body. Written and conceived in Britain’s mid 1970s glam rock era, the show is big, bold and brash.
Any theatrical revival will always be compared to the much-loved film starring Tim Curry and Richard O’Brien, and any cast will always have big stilettos to fill. Former BBC sports journalist and Strictly Come Dancing winner Ore Oduba takes top billing as a competent Brad. As his sweetheart, Janet, Haley Flaherty excels in the big numbers. The narrator of the story, Philip Franks, has a difficult task of incorporating the heckles and interruptions of the audience, although his replies and quips seem assured if not well rehearsed. Kristian Lavercombe has played Riff Raff over 1800 times and is enjoyable filling Richard O’Brien’s famous role, and as the outrageous “sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania” Frank-N-Furter, Stephen Webb struts his way around the stage with all the confidence necessary to fill his stockings.
The problem with The Rocky Horror Show in 2021 is simply that it no longer feels outrageous or subversive as it presumably did nearly half a century ago. In a world where pansexuality and gender fluidity are much more normalised, the escapism an audience might feel into this ‘other’ becomes diminished. Men in sexualised drag does no longer has the shock factor it most likely once had – inviting those who might want to explore this side of themselves into the haven of a liberal, non-judgemental theatre and like-minded people. The show feels quite safe – a bit of fun, frisson and fluff (entirely acceptable) but it is a shame that it not longer holds a shocking, rebellious streak. It was noticeable that the demographic of the half full Alhambra theatre were over a certain age – a sign perhaps that the world has moved on a lot faster for the younger generation than the producers of the show may particularly wish.
The cast have an enormous amount of fun as well as the loyal fans who will no doubt return again and again to see their beloved show for many years to come. For a Rocky Horror ‘virgin’, however, the concept feels a little dated, belonging in a bygone era of a world that was much more binary.
Runs until 20th November 2021