Despite being originally conceived and produced in the early 1970s, The Rocky Horror Show looks, sounds and feels brand spanking new. And I choose my words carefully.
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 almost 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, at heart it’s ‘a bit of fun.’
Philip Franks is experienced in the role of narrator. I saw him doing it back in 2019. His oily charm is perfect for the role and he’s clearly heard every possible talk-back line that audience members throw at him. Added to that he’s also worked in a few meta and topical jokes (a poem about a boy called Harry, example). It’s one of those performances that leaves little or no room to imagine anyone else in the role. He’s joined here by fellow alumni from 2019 including Stephen Webb as Frank N Furter and Kristian Lavercombe as Riff Raff. Both commit the full-on energy and excesses required to give the show life. Because, let’s face it, the plot is not the thing here. Neither do we become particularly emotionally invested in any of the characters. Like Frankenstein’s monster, what breathes life into this creation is pure energy.
The production design captures all the elements of classics of the horror film genre, from spooky entrance doors and corridors to weird science labs. And the whole set is wrapped in a giant swirl of celluloid film – appropriate not just because of the show’s homage to Hammer films, but also calling back to its early performances in disused cinemas. The lighting is a key ingredient here. Colourful and atmospheric, it also achieves a remarkable rocket launch effect. The latter is helped significantly by the sound design, which results in you feeling the show as well as hearing it. Praise too for the band. Perched high up at the back of the set they are the engine of the show, which is mostly sung through.
The Rocky Horror Show delivers great entertainment, polished production values and, still, an evening at the theatre unlike anything else you’ve ever experienced. It’s a remarkable thing. If you’ve never seen it, go with an open mind and just let it happen. It feels weird at first, but let it grow on you!
Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show is at the Orchard Theatre Dartford until Saturday 14 January and then continues on tour.