The Rocky Horror Show
Trafalgar Theatre and Hill Street Productions
Palace Theatre, Manchester
In deference to the corny science fiction / horror movies which inspired The Rocky Horror Show, it might be said the show has not so much evolved as mutated over the years. It began as a fond if raunchy musical tribute to the so-bad-they-are-good sci-fi movies of the 1950s / '60s and developed, via late-night cinema screenings of the movie, into a celebration in which the audience was involved fully catcalling and throwing toast and rice or spraying water at appropriate moments.
Health and safety concerns have toned down the audience involvement and few things can spoil a party mood like being frisked on arrival at the theatre and required to prove vaccination status and wear a safety mask. Yet, The Rocky Horror Show survives.
The plot follows the established formula of the movies to which the show pays tribute. Newly engaged and highly innocent Brad (Ore Oduba) and Janet (Haley Flaherty) are stranded after their car breaks down. They seek shelter in a nearby castle only to find its owner Frank N. Furter (Stephen Webb) is, well, making a man and is also fond of seductive games.
There are pitfalls to staging productions of The Rocky Horror Show. Past productions have featured gimmick casting of ephemeral celebrities who let the side down in their singing and acting and the temptation to take a populist approach and give fans exactly what they are expecting can lead to a dull, predictable evening. The one consistent element is that Richard O'Brien’s soundtrack is without a single dull tune and can be relied upon to have the audience on their feet at key moments.
While delivering a crowd-pleasing show, director Christopher Luscombe mixes in a few surprises. Brad and Janet are an inter-racial couple. Hugh Durrant’s subversive set brings an artificial quality to the ‘normal’ scenes of Brad and Janet before their meeting with extraordinary people—their car is an obvious cartoon—while the bizarre world they enter, a darkly stocked hunting lodge and scientist’s laboratory, is a realistic construction. In tribute to the movies which inspired the show, a celluloid film strip (through which the live band can be glimpsed) runs around the stage.
Stephen Webb is a real surprise as Frank N. Furter. Considering he spends the show dressed in high heels, basque and stockings, his deep voice and American twang makes for a butch, commanding figure.
The show is stolen by Philip Franks’s Narrator. The rule in live performances of The Rocky Horror Show is that the Narrator is the only character allowed to acknowledge, and respond to, the catcalls from the audience. By this stage in the show’s history, the heckles are known in advance and the Narrator’s responses can be anticipated. However, Franks dares to push the show outside of the horror / SF comfort zone ad-libbing gags about contemporary political scandals and local place names. The audience respond accordingly hazarding new heckles—when the Narrator refers to people who prefer a physical relationship, a heckler cries out the name of a certain member of the Royal Family.
This is a refreshing version of a well-known classic that avoids all potential problems. Considering the sexual content, there is a strange sense of innocence: a nostalgia not for old movies but for the pre-COVID period when it was socially acceptable to simply cut loose and have a good time. Or to put it another way: whatever happened to Saturday night?
Reviewer: David Cunningham