Though touring regularly, The Rocky Horror Show hasn’t appeared in the West End since 1990-1991. For a limited time, this camp, B-side parody musical returns to the Playhouse Theatre before embarking on a new UK tour. Devoted fans attend in costume and call out responses during the show, carrying on long-held traditions developed after the release of the film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Audience behaviour is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the West End and the regular punters don’t quite know what to make of the anarchy, but it’s a fun night out and a cultural awakening to this cult phenomenon. This is a polished revival with some inventive touches and great performances, but does the award winning musical from the 1970s withstand the test of time? Not so much.
The casting highlight for the fans is playwright Richard O’Brien as the Narrator. A small role, but an inspiring sight to behold considering the gent is in his 70s. From the applause and screams on his first entrance, fans regard O’Brien as a god among men, or an actual god. He’s charismatic, still has a wonderfully rich speaking voice and indulges the audience’s adoration. David Bedella as Frank-N-Furter is sexy with a dangerous edge and excellent comic timing, particularly in the bedroom at the beginning of Act II. Disappointingly, he corpses a couple of times at some of the more rare audience call-outs and often loses his flow. There’s no banter with the audience; instead long pauses cause frequent disruption to the pace as the actors wait for the audience to recover from the call-out humour. The performances are otherwise excellent from this highly experienced cast of thirteen, several who have been in previous Rocky Horror Show tours. The audience have the potential to become a character and do their best to make themselves known through the call-outs and bad behaviour, including talking at full volume, taking photos and shining torches, but they are largely ignored by the cast.
The design is nuanced, with elements of meta-theatre in the cinema reel edging to remind us of its root in the film world. Frank’s reveal in a striking backlit wardrobe is used enough to create impact but not overly employed. Hugh Durrant’s set richly contrasts Brad and Janet’s pre-Frank world with the castle interior. Haze is used enough to sharpen beams of light to make a laser effect with using actual lasers or an overkill on the smoke. Costumes match those in the film and are mirrored in the audience who chose to dress up.
There’s no denying that this is a slick production of a show that, to be frank, isn’t very good. Structurally, the first act has the best numbers and consistent momentum, albeit with clunky and rushed transitions into the songs. After the interval, the story and music loses its way with ballads and plot twists that don’t fit the conventions established in the first half. Some of the new sub-plots don’t even really make sense and are introduced too late to develop properly, such as the appearance of Dr. Scott in his brief scene. Most pointedly, The Rocky Horror Show is painfully misogynistic and offensive by current social standards: there’s slut-shaming, the antiquated term ‘transvestite’ (and the character labeled as such is a rather horrible villain), rape that’s justified by the victims’ enjoyment of it, objectification and sex slavery. It can be argued that it’s all in good fun and is a product of its time, but at the time it was written these were more socially acceptable behaviours that society has now rightly condemned and tries to move past. There is no element of moralizing in the story to draw attention to these actions’ unacceptability, nor are they new enough to theatrical content to make them edgy or shocking.
The fans drive the demand for The Rocky Horror Show and as such, it will never quietly fade away into retirement, despite its highly questionable themes. The skillful performances and high production values make the night enjoyable, but the story is an unpleasant relic from a time with a more limited understanding of human rights.
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