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All’s Nell That Ends Nell

by on 24 May 2023

In Her Own Lunchtime

All’s Nell That Ends Nell

by Little Nell

Trafalgar Studios Theatre until 23rd May

Review by Heather Moulson

An enigmatic icon of Rocky Horror royalty tapped danced her way onto a very camp set, a splendid throne and quite literally, a table with legs.  Here was Laura Elizabeth Campbell aka Little Nell, backlit with an impressive slideshow, who gave us an honest and open account of her life and success.  As she, resplendent in a sequinned dress, invited us into her rich and generous past we were drawn in from the start.

When I saw Little Nell in The Rocky Horror Show in 1974, she was only nineteen years old, and a former tap dancing busker, discovered by Jim Sharman and Brian Thomson in Kensington High Street.  And what a discovery!  Australian director, Sharman was asked to put on a production for the Theatre Upstairs at The Royal Court, with a budget of a £1,000, a three week rehearsal and a three week run.  While searching for a project, he was shown a musical written by a young Richard O’Brien.  Nell became a natural part of the team of powerful Antipodeans.

Brian Thomson, the talented set designer, was given £500 and came up with genius ways of recreating a gothic Frankenstein set within a run-down atmosphere.  Sue Blane, the costume designer had a £250 budget and the idea of a haunted cinema.  Blane came up with amazing and unforgettable costumes.  Producer Michael White then stepped in with another £1,000. 

Nell showed us early and charming pictures of the strong cast and creators – Richard O’Brien, Jim Sharman, Brian Thomson, Richard Hartley, Sue Blane, plus the iconic performers – Julie Covington, Christopher Malcolm, Johnathan Adams, Paddy O’Hagan, Raynor Bourton, Patricia Quinn, and Tim Curry.

Premiering in 1973, Rocky Horror was an overnight success and by the second evening, Johnathan King wanted them to record an LP of the soundtrack … a classic rag to riches story.  An added bonus was Vincent Price attending the opening night.  What an era!  The Rocky Horror Show is now fifty years old.

Nell, who was in the show for seven months, gave us a frank account of the making of that other cult spin off The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  The rewrite took a mere week, and they had the joy of discovering a young Meatloaf, who in time became a huge star.  Shot in less than six weeks at the minuscule Bray Studios, on a very low budget, the cast were treated appallingly.  There were no chairs for the actors to sit on, only Frank-N-Furter’s camp throne.  Nell made us laugh about Susan Sarandon who caught a cold during filming and made sure everyone knew about it!!  

I recalled seeing this remarkable film in ’75 at the Rialto in Coventry Street.  There were five of us in the audience at most. Competing with Jaws across the road, Rocky Horror looked set for oblivion.  However, once it was shown at midnight in New York’s Waverly Theater in New York, its cult status truly unravelled.

Breathless from such an extraordinary success story, there was a need for a short interval.  However, Nell, on her vibrant return, turned to 1985, when New York beckoned her.  Under the witty presentation, How to Knit a Nightclub, she elaborated about her club on West 14th Street in Manhattan.  Up there on a par with nearby Studio 54, Prince would perform in the tiny room, while Warhol, Timothy Leary, Quincy Jones and the magical guest list of the day would pour in.  Nell then ended that part of her life for motherhood at the age of 45.  She also enrolled as a full time art student, presenting a great montage of stills of her incredible life.

After a sketchy tour in rural Australia, and a village hall in Wales, Nell announced this was her twelfth performance of this solo show.  Her experiences had never made her rich, and she had lived most of her life alone.  Yet it sounded like a life worth living.  Exhausted on both sides of the stage, Nell expressed once again her sincere thanks for Rocky Horror for taking a chance on a 19 year old, and thanked her audience for coming, claiming we were either Rocky Horror fans or people she’d slept with!  I was the former.

I came away with a tinge of disappointment that Nell did not go more into her acting career post-Rocky Horror.  She was stunning in Rock Follies and was a vibrant sociopathic co-lead in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee, a highly disturbing but marvellous film.  Nor did she elaborate on her recording career.  I think there needs to be a sequel, Nell. 

The mystery of Nell Campbell’s invitation on Instagram to meet her after the show unfolded, as I saw souvenirs in the foyer at £25 upwards.  Including a selfie.  She might get rich yet.

Heather Moulson, May 2023

Photography by JD Byrne

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