The usherette in the run-down theatre, the couple coyly coupling in the front seat of a cheap car at a cheap drive-in, the double B feature that put the schlock out front and centre and let the A feature and the A list go fuck themselves, those are the raw elements of The Rocky Horror Show. “Science Fiction” opens the show with a cut-up collage of alien invaders, crazed scientists and rambling arachnids that perfectly locates and encapsulates Rocky’s celebration of the weird and the rebellious, the outcast and the underdog.
Where American filmmakers of the 1950’s hyped up their gloopy invaders on the back of reds-neath-the-bed hysteria and pitted them against the might of the all American cisexual, O’Brien’s musical is the high-kicking revenge of the monster, the triumphant return of the repressed. It’s a mascara-smudging 40 years since Rocky Horror premiered upstairs at the Royal Court, and its message of radical self-definition, of the fluidity of gender and sexuality, of the autophagia of the American dream, is still kicking hard against the pricks. And more importantly, the show itself is in the rudest of health.
The lion’s share of the credit must go to the incredible Ben Forster, who’s truly a Brad to rival Barry Bostwick. He perfectly captures the gawky all-American, and with a voice to die for he makes even the slightly snoozy “One In A While” into a showstopper. Roxanne Pallett’s Janet is almost as good, if she lacks subtlety in the early scenes, her ascent into lusty decadence is brilliantly managed. Kristian Lavercombe puts in a deliciously sleazy performance as Riff-Riff that belies his young age, his soaring top note in “Over At The Frankenstein Place” has rarely sounded better.
The jowly Philip Franks is a game Narrator, Time Warp-ing with gusto and defly repelling the occasional call-out. Incidentally, apart from a small contingent of die-hards in the front row, whose participation was so perfectly timed and consistent that they could almost be suspected as stooges, there was very little partici….pation from the audience at all. It’s understandable that theatres now discourage the throwing of rice and hot dogs, but dammit (Janet) you don’t have to listen to them. There were few cries of ‘Slut’, which is a shame because it’s acquired a fascinating new context in the days of Slutwalks, and almost none of ‘Arsehole’; one woman placed a newspaper over her head but, alas, the dousing from a hundred water pistols never arrived. I don’t want to read too much into it but I fear it may be indicative of the decline of western uncivilisation.
Oliver Thornton has the voice for Frank-N-Furter, but try as he might he cannot quite muster the necessary charisma. His accent slips and slides all over the place, which isn’t really a problem for a character of alien origin, but he lacks both the menace and the unhinged sexuality of a great Frank. He’s at his best in “I’m Going Home”, where he can let his silky vocals do the talking and doesn’t have to rely on his rather feeble pelvic thrusting.
Perhaps because of Thornton’s lack of mojo, the entire production feels slightly de-sexed. The seduction scenes are played on one of those vertical beds that everyone’s using these days, rather than through the shadowplay of old, which limits the potential for truly grotesque bawdery. The sight of Frank drinking a condom full of cum that appeared in the 30th Anniversary tour feels quite a leap from the tame sauciness in Christopher Luscombe’s rather polite production.
The de-emphasis on sex extends to the design, with the gaudy lips and tongue of ten years ago replaced with a slightly austere but ingeniously constructed set from Hugh Durrant. Taking pulp B-movies as its inspiration, it’s a delightfully Scooby Doo-esque confection of rotating panels and bubbling test tubes. The decision to eliminate on stage view screens feels a little mean and prissy, but elsewhere the design oozes the perfect Ed Woodian charm.
The band is, in O’Brien’s words, “cooking” under the leadership of Tony Castro, and Nathan Wright’s choreography is bang on. The great man himself took to the stage on press night, still stunning at 70, and led the cast in one final rendition of “Time Warp” to bring the evening to the sort of climax that would have had Mother Theresa high-kicking in the aisles.
It may have lost a scintilla of its danger in its 40th year on the stage, but it’s still got some serious bite.