THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW
The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 27th September, 2021
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen this show over the decades, but each time I go back I am reminded why I love it and why it’s a complete and utter cult. Audience participation has calmed down considerably, as venues frown upon people hurling slices of toast and other missiles to punctuate lines of dialogue, but there is still plenty to keep the fans occupied, and we have some expert hecklers in the auditorium tonight.
Richard O’Brien’s show has become highly ritualised. Some of us chant responses like a litany, gleefully denouncing the hero Brad as an arsehole, and his girlfriend Janet as a slut, every time their names are mentioned—to the bemusement of those who’ve never seen the show before. The taking part is a massive part of the experience, and you can feel free to shout as much or as little as you like, and indeed to dress up to whatever extent you like.
The show opens with a belter, Science Fiction Double Feature, beautifully sung by Suzie McAdam’s usherette, full of references to very old sci-fi movies and names of bygone actors. It occurs to me that perhaps some of the younger audience members will only know Michael Rennie and Fay Wray et al from this libretto. O’Brien’s show is a homage to those creaky old flicks of yesteryear.
Ore Oduba, TV presenter turned Strictly star, plays the nerdish Brad (arsehole!) and acquits himself rather well, with a strong singing voice, and the movement skills you’d expect. He is supported by Haley Flaherty as Janet (slut!) who perfectly depicts Janet’s journey from wide-eyed virgin to wide-legged, experienced woman. Her sexual awakening leads to actualisation; Brad’s leads only to confusion.
At this performance, Riff Raff is played by Danny Knott, lumbering around, encumbered by his hunchback, and singing some of the score’s most searing lines. Goosebump territory. For all the fun and shouting out rude words, this is a beautiful show, musically and lyrically speaking. There is something sophisticated underpinning everything, and this is just as crucial to the show’s longevity as the opportunity to dress up and shout things (but not throwing them!)
Lauren Ingram’s Columbia is spot on, with an extended moment in the spotlight, after she has been zapped by a device. Columbia is the heart of the show, adding emotional depth to the glitzy, glamorous goings on. Ben Westhead is an appealing Rocky, and Joe Allens makes his mark doubling as the unfortunate Eddie and as Dr Scott.
Stephen Webb absolutely rules as evil scientist Frank N Furter, combining camp posturing with a macho demeanour. The iconic Tim Curry is perhaps indelible, but Webb both delivers audience expectations and brings something new to his interpretation. His Frank is masterful, and brittle, and predatory, and outrageous. It’s a remarkable performance.
But for me, the evening belongs to Philip Franks’s narrator. Often a role that is sidelined, sometimes drowned out by cries of ‘Boring!’ from the crowd, Franks handles the verbiage of the lines he has to get out, adding in bang up-to-date topical jokes—thereby keeping the material fresh. He is also a skilful handler of the crowd, shooting down hecklers with savage wit, and clearly enjoying himself as much as we are.
Yes, it’s a load of fun, but I’m always struck by the rather downbeat resolution. It’s one of the most poignant endings in musical theatre, all the shenanigans reduced to a couplet of nihilistic existentialism. It’s a good job the cast is resurrected to get us to do the Time Warp again. We need to go home on a high.
A fabulous night out with hidden depths.