Doing the time warp, again: Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show

The Rocky Horror Show is a phenomenon bordering on a cult, which first sprang to life in 1973 in London, and the following year in Sydney. A mash-up of science-fiction and horror tropes, and gleefully set firmly within the tradition of the rock’n’roll musical, the Rocky Horror Show now rocks back into Sydney’s Lyric theatre in this 40th anniversary production. Despite the glitz and glamour with which it struts about the stage in its glittering stilettos, it feels tired, old, and more than a little bit more camp than it should be.

Directed by Christopher Luscombe, this production originated in the UK in late-2012, embarking on a national tour, before coming to Australia and touring Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne last year to much acclaim. Now fifteen months old in its current Australian incarnation, it looks and feels too squeaky clean (physically and, bizarrely, sexually), too bright, too sanitised to be deserving of the title ‘Rocky Horror.’ Adequately designed by Hugh Durrant to tour, everything spins, turns, slides, or glides; framed within an arc of celluloid film sprockets, the production’s nods to the 1975 film are less than subtle, and the whole production sits in a strange limbo world, caught between an homage to the film, and staying true to the show’s B-movie aesthetic and verve. Rather than the beloved decaying faded chintz of Rocky’s of old, what we get here is a bright confectionary-coloured set, a band with more attack than Frank armed with a chainsaw, and almost no darker edge to its near-pantomime campiness. And judging from reports, this is perhaps more to do with the producers than the director.
The cast here all play their characters large and loud, as befits the occasion, but they are overshadowed by Craig McLachlan’s turn as Frank’n’furter. While he at times seems to be copying Tim Curry’s iconic portrayal, he is too innocently cheeky, too clean a Frank to be of any real menace or danger to anyone. He tears up the stage with glee, but it never feels real, only like acting, as though his heart’s not in it. (After fifteen months, I don’t blame him.) His ad-libs and asides to the audience feel forced and laboured, scripted even, lacking the spontaneity such remarks require; as he minces around the stage in his heels (never striding), you get the feeling it is all show, and on a number of occasions the lines get lost in his delivery as he milks the stock phrases for affect.
As for the rest of the ensemble, Riff Raff seems almost a carbon-copy of Richard O’Brien’s; Brad and Janet feel too innocent; Rocky too plastic (when he starts to walk, you can almost hear the plastic creaking); Eddie lacks grunt and anarchy; Magenta and Columbia, while strong singers, never feel more than pawns in the story (not even when Columbia stands up to Frank at the end can she redeem her character’s near-superfluousness). As for Bert Newton as the Narrator (yes, he’s still around) – aside from attracting a round of applause for simply walking onto stage, he has little to commend him, and he stands there jittering, grinning, as the rest of the cast pour their heart and soul into the final round of ‘The Time Warp.’
The band, criminally unacknowledged in the show’s program, play with gusto and verve, bringing attack and volume to Richard O’Brien’s wonderful tunes. The trouble lies in the mixing – the band drowns out the singers on more than several occasions, and everything starts to peak in the full ensemble numbers (like ‘The Time Warp’). Even though it’s a relatively short musical at two hours – the first act zips by in forty-five minutes, while the second drags at the same – you could be excused for finding yourself tuning out and letting the juggernaut do its thing and preach to the converted. In this regard, it works well, too well perhaps, though the dozen seventeen-year-olds behind me loved every minute of it, giggling, cringing, and heckling occasionally. And here’s the thing – the film works as well as it does because it feels dangerous; there is still an edge to it, forty years later, and you’re never quite sure what Tim Curry’s Frank or any of the others are going to do next (multiple viewings notwithstanding). Here, live, on stage, everything feels too slick, rehearsed and played within an inch of its life, and even when McLachlan’s Frank does try to break the fourth wall, playing into the eager hands and laps of the front-row groupies, it springs right back up and stays firmly in place, feeling more like a museum-piece than an involving piece of theatre. The gender politics and sexual fluidity which were rampant in the 1970s and made the original productions and the film so ground-breaking are largely ignored here: Frank’s fishnets and heels are more trademark than daring; the bedroom scenes with Frank and Janet, and Frank and Brad, played here as comedy, would border on sexual assault and/or rape if looked at in another light. And while McLachlan smiles knowingly at us, insisting that we “might even like it” after a fashion (or, as Jason Blake says, it “insists you sit down, shut up, and take it smiling”), the reality of the scene still chills us. For the seventeen-year-olds behind me, it was too much. This production feels like it’s going through the motions of doing the Time Warp, and plays with not much heart.

Celebrated and touted as “the sexiest show” and full of “fun, frolics and frivolity,” this Show isn’t terribly rocky at all, and there’s certainly no horror. If you want a pseudo-horror rock’n’roll musical, my money’s still on Little Shop of Horrors.

No comments:

Post a comment