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The Rocky Horror Show

by on 24 May 2022

Naughty Trisexual Megalomania

The Rocky Horror Show

by Richard O’Brien

Trafalgar Theatre Productions and associates at Richmond Theatre until 28th May, then on tour until January 2023

Review by Mark Aspen

Tonight I lost my virginity.  Yes, it came as a surprise to me too, especially as I have three children and three grandchildren.  But it seems that if you have not seen The Rocky Horror Show before, then you are a virgin.  At least that’s what the lady in the seat next to me said.  She was wearing stockings, suspenders and a basque.  The gentleman with her was not wearing trousers, but he did look quite, er … fetching, in fishnet tights. 

There are lots of conventions to trap the unwary audience member in this cult musical, although there is a useful virgin’s guide.  Moreover, the audience need to know their lines, or have ready ripostes when cued by a character’s half-beat pause.  It’s a bit like the pantomime, but a hundred times naughtier. 

When The Rocky Horror Show premiered in 1973, it was in the Royal Court in Chelsea, in its tiny studio space that then held an audience of 63.  It was such a success that it immediately bounced its way to bigger and bigger theatres and in a few short months to the West End, and then forward to be an international hit.  In just two years Hollywood was in on the act and it pulled in $135million for 20th Century Fox for The Rocky Horror Picture Show film adaptation.  Its cult status has never diminished.

The Rocky Horror Show is a musical that takes no prisoners.  It is full-on, in-yer-face; so it goes straight in.  No gradual fade down the house lights, fade up the music, but bang, there is an explosion of full-blast chest-echoing music, as a drive-in cinema Usherette tells us of the genre in a song, Science Fiction – Double Feature.  This is a sassy powerful number for Suzie McAdam, who can really give it some, and parenthesises her main role in the show.  The Usherette, albeit with her ice-cream tray, flaunts her ice-cream white miniskirt, stockings and towering heels, so we know the way things are going to go.

Brad and Janet leave the drive-in.  Now is the time, Brad proposes marriage, Janet accepts and they drive happily on, but into a rainstorm.  Pop! A burst tyre leaves them stranded and they’ve lost their way.  But through the storm they see a castle (lots of those in USA so no need to be suspicious) and go to seek help.  Now begins the real plot, which is based oh so loosely on Frankenstein … fast and loose in fact.  Mary Shelley would have difficulty recognising it, wrapped up as it is in a sci-fi package.

However, we are helped to find our way by the Narrator, who also has the task of fielding most of the audience’s comments, ripostes and downright filthy talk.  (Where do these young ladies learn about such things?)  Philip Franks, whose mellow RSC voice flows like silk amongst all the harsh American accents, is more than up to the task, not only giving as good as he gets, but throwing the shots back with consummate spontaneous wit.

With a plethora of venues in the UK 2022 tour and the possibility of international dates, set designer Hugh Durrant has aimed for versatility and simplicity, without sacrificing impact in any way.  There are miles of glittering slit-drape and a very impressive swagged sectional front curtain.   The exception to the simplicity is main set, the interior of Frank N Furter’s “place”.  The baronial hall has some nice touches, like the hunting trophies of baboon, warthogs, an elephant’s brain and even a dodo!   All this, though, is the canvas for lighting designer, Nick Richings to notch up the vibrancy of the musical and its rock-n-roll energy.  The lighting never stays still, strobes point up the sci-fi elements and intelli’-spots involve the audience. 

Our eclectic audience did not however need much encouragement to be involved.  Many were on their feet, even before the opening notes of the iconic Time Warp, the sing-along and easy to follow dance number.

The dancing on stage never stops short of frenetic energy that propels the production.  Choreographer Nathan Wright constantly puts the four “Phantoms” who comprise the chorus through their paces, and all the principals equally have exhaustingly energetic dance numbers.

Even more arduously active is the five-piece band under musical director Greg Arrowsmith.  The pumping rock-n-roll rhythms are very occasionally relaxed for more reflective pieces, but the music is always there, enhancing the mood and driving the pace.

Sheltering from the downpour opens a whole new world to Brad and Janet, who are somewhat sheltered in life.  They are innocents abroad when they arrive at Frank N Furter’s foreboding pile.  They enter a laboratory to outrageous experiments and temple to outrageous eroticism, sex in all its most freely fluid forms.

Brad is played by the all-round performer, the actor, dancer and broadcaster, Ore Oduba previous winner of Strictly Come Dancing.  Certainly all those skills come to the fore in this role, in which Oduba shows the bemused compliance of the character.  He is the sort of guy who doesn’t want to upset anyone.  Equally, Haley Flaherty’s Janet is the uncomplicated girl-next-door.  Versatile actress and Royal Ballet School graduate Flaherty is described as “the fan’s favourite” and one can see why; she is made for this part.  They both put across the air of innocence corrupted and have some touching musical numbers, such as Dammit, Janet, which form a contrasting respite to the rest of the show. 

Frank N Furter’s place is staffed by an eclectic group of weirdos, Riff Raff, the butler, the “housekeeper” Magenta, and Columbia the maid.  Riff Raff and Magenta are siblings and, like their master, are extra-terrestrial aliens from the planet Transexual.  Kristian Lavercombe has the distinction of playing the role of Riff Raff more than anyone in the musical’s nearly half century history, with over 1800 performances under his belt.  As expected, he certainly knows what he is doing, and knows how to extract the maximum of comedy and revulsion from the deformed and mistreated hunchback.  The crabwalks and tics of this loyal yet abused creature are all timed to perfection. 

Suzie McAdam in her main role as Magenta certainly has some zing!  She has played non-human roles as diverse as Tinkbell and a cannibal woman from Mars, so aliens come almost naturally.   Her erotically-charged dancing and powerful jazz voice punch home an aura of aggressive sexuality.   

Columbia, being the only human servant of Frank N Furter, has a more subtle persona, as far as anything can be subtle in this most extravagantly over-the-top show.  She is the first to rebel when the master’s destructive nature and malign motives become clear.  As Columbia, Lauren Ingram has a feline sensuality, can sing some remarkable Hölle Rache style high FFF’s … and has a good line in stylising a nervous breakdown.

The plot revolves around the deranged scientist, Frank N Furter, who is a bisexual, trisexual, transvestite, megalomaniacal pervert.  That aside, he has quite a following.  His admirers and acolytes adore him and he holds them in thrall.  Stephen Webb gives a mighty performance as Frank N Furter, with enormous stage presence.  He bursts onto the stage, to the delight of aficionados in the audience, with Sweet Transvestite, almost his theme song.  With his commanding vocal punch and sexually uninhibited dancing, Webb is reminiscent of Freddie Mercury.  A flick of the eyebrow says all about the cynicism of this character whose motto is “Give yourself over to pleasure”.   

With supercilious insouciance, Frank N Furter corrupts everyone around.  But what is he up to in his sinister hideaway?  No less than, in true Mary Shelley Frankenstein style, creating a perfect human being.  But he not so much interested in the creature’s sagacity and sentience, as in his sexuality and subservience.  The brief he gives himself is for “a muscle man with blond hair and a tan”.  Ben Westhead fits the bill as Rocky, the scientist’s (second as it turns out) creation.  Newcomer Westhead is certainly the well-toned healthy specimen desired by and for his creator.  He has a happy-go-lucky smile and Magenta too is impressed.  For Columbia though he is just OK, she doesn’t like too many muscles.  Rocky is a bit wary though when Frank drools over him, singing I Can Make You a Man.

In a “here’s one I prepared earlier” moment, Frank N Furter’s first creation flies out of the fridge.  He is Eddie, “one from the vaults”, who didn’t quite come up to the specification.  But he became Columbia’s lover … and is a bit less endowed on the muscle front.  Joe Allen as Eddie makes a remarkably agile discarded zombie.  A leather-clad biker, he is vocally on full throttle, playing his guitar and rushing around the stage until returned to the vaults by his creator’s chainsaw.  Joe Allen later returns in his doubling role as the former science tutor to Brad and Janet, Dr. Scott, an unexpected visitor to the castle.   Scott is paraplegic, but Allen can still “dance” in his wheelchair! 

Both Brad and Janet lose their virginity to Frank, quite explicitly so, in the opening to Act Two.  Janet reluctantly accepts her corruption, but Brad is bu*g*r*d if he knows what’s going on!  However, this is one of the things that makes The Rocky Horror Show a cult show of continuing popular following, its unashamed sexual licence and lack of inhibition.   And another thing is of course the outrageous costumes, with tonnage quantities of suspender belts, teddies and high heels, and of glitz and glitter, courtesy of award-winning costume designer Sue Blane MBE.   (This must be the only production where credit is given to the corset supplier.)   Darren Ware’s make-up and wig department also work overtime to astounding effect.   

Director Christopher Luscombe, with his tongue firmly in his cheek, keeps up The Rocky Horror Show ’s superlatives for its energy, its black comedy and its licentiousness.  But there are moments of reflection when the Narrator concludes “crawling on the planet’s face, insects called the human race, lost in time, and lost in space”.  But true to the pantomime ambience, Philip Franks replies to an audience catcall saying he wanted to be a poet, and recites panto-wise a ditty on current politics, about “Beergate”.

I was reminded of a recent limerick:

There was an MP called Sir Kier

When in Durham he fancied a beer

Ange said “What’s the hurry,

Don’t bother with curry

You can nosh on a growler right here.”

Whoops, I have lost my virginity!

Mark Aspen, May 2022

Photography David Freeman

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