The challenge for any production of this show is how well it can engage someone who is not a die-hard fan. When audience members arrive in costume, know every word of the script and know all the – now required – audience interjections, it’s challenging for a newbie. It can feel like being at a party where you’re the only guest who doesn’t know anyone there.
Director Christopher Luscombe’s production has been on the go for 13 years but succeeds in being much more than a dusty tribute show. It’s bright, fresh, brash. The lighting design in particular is modern, crisp and dynamic. The references to classic Hammer and Hollywood horror films are explicitly made in the set design with its un-spooling roll of film. And it’s loud. The band and the sound (it’s nearly entirely sung through) are both great. It’s billed as a rock ‘n’ roll musical and the volume and drive of the often fast paced and catchy tunes really help get the audience hooked from the start.
The plot concerns newly engaged Brad and Janet who arrive at Frank N Furter’s rather spooky house needing to make a phone call after their car breaks down. Once they’re in the house they meet the inmates in various ways – most famously in The Time Warp – before Frank N Furter himself arrives and announces he is about to bring his latest creation, Rocky, to life. With cross-dressing, all sorts of sexuality and much more, the show has a clear message about equality and inclusivity. But, as Kenny Everett’s Cupid Stunt said so memorably, it’s all done in the best possible taste – meaning with no taste at all! It’s not about the message and subtle is not what they’re going for. As creator Richard O’Brien admits in the programme, at heart it’s ‘a bit of fun’.
Broad performances are the order of the day. Joanne Clifton as Janet is a surprisingly powerful singer and James Darch is quietly hunky as Brad. Kristin Lavercombe lurches around alarmingly as butler Riff Raff. Stephen Webb, meanwhile is a dominating presence and completely watchable a Frank N Furter. But for me the real star of the night was Philip Franks’ narrator and gets the show it’s fourth star. He clearly relished not only his own script but the various interjections which have become a required part of every Rocky Horror performance. He allowed time for them and had witty and perfectly judged come-backs for every one. And he was topical too. ‘I would like to take you on a strange journey. Stranger than a Thomas Cook holiday. You’ll never return!’ He responded to one ‘heckle’ with ‘You should be in Parliament. Oh wait! You can’t. It’s shut!’.
It was all loved by a lively and enthusiastic audience. But did it succeed in allowing non fans in? Well I have seen the show once before, many years ago, and was then left thinking it was peculiar and I was not converted into membership of the fold of fans. This time it certainly worked better. The music is great, the show is slick and professional and the cast work hard so that it feels new and fresh. All the same, I think I need to see it a few more times before I feel the need to turn up, as gentleman in the audience did, wearing a red sparkly jacket and black tights!
Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show is at The Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 28 September.