Starting life in a broom cupboard of a theatre in Chelsea way back in 1973, 'The Rocky Horror Show' has since acquired much affection in its long life, as well as a unique, cult status in the musical genre. Conceived by Richard O'Brien, it pops up now and then in new reincarnations to satisfy aficionados who know the score and the story back-to-front, and to entice some 'Rocky Virgins' to take the plunge into musical history. This current production is wending its way around the country led by David Bedella in camply fine form as Frank 'N' Further, and hunky Julian Essex-Spurrier as his laboratory-engineered, blond, muscular 'freak'.
If you really don't know the plot (can there be anyone?) you won't need to struggle with complexities such as subtle nuances of storyline, hidden meanings or any of that kind of theatrical stuff here. The basic idea is that a pair of squeaky-clean sweethearts - Brad and Janet - head off to meet up with their former university lecturer, Dr Scott, when their car has a flat tyre and they have to seek assistance from a nearby, spooky castle. But they get more than a free 'phone call when they meet the transvestite, bisexual owner of the place, and his 'servants' who pander to his every whim. In the second half, the story gets a little more foggy and bizarre as Dr Scott turns up in a wheel chair, and Frank 'N' Furter meets his demise at the hands of aliens. Still, the introductory song - the delightfully evocative 'Science Fiction/ Double Feature - rather gives the game away, because O'Brien's vision is to recreate those dire second features many of us had to endure in our film-going infancy, and which seldom made sense to anyone, particularly the writers.
Audience participation in the form of callbacks from the house have become a staple in this show. However, there's an almost obligatory code of etiquette which needs to be followed - for example, one shouts out 'asshole' when Brad's name is mentioned, or 'Slut' when Janet's name is voiced, but one must NEVER shout out during songs. Some of the callbacks have evolved since the last time I saw the show. When Janet says (referring to Rocky) that she doesn't like so many muscles, one wit in the audience said "No, just one big one". But then, that's one of the endearing qualities of the show – it adapts to the tastes and attitudes of new audiences.
And thanks to a movement that began on university campuses in the USA, many audience members dress for the show. Times have obviously changed though, because the audience on this occasion were far more subdued than I remember previously, and no-one seemed to have slithered into their fishnets or basque (a close-fitting bodice) to waltz around the theatre posing as Frank 'n' Furter look-alikes. And presumably for safety reasons, the ritual waving of cigarette lighters to the strains of "There's a Light" has been banned. Sad really, and a little disappointing.
Blasting out the rock 'n roll is a fine band, led by Musical Director Simon Beck on piano, which belts out a pulsing pace in spite of their small numbers. And the overall quality of the singing from a well-drilled cast is more than enough to do justice to O'Brien's infectious tunes.
Novel and risqué in the heady days of its conception, 'Rocky' still has the power to both amuse and entertain, and does it well. What really keeps the appeal of this raunchy bit of nonsense is the power of the music. Songs like 'Dammit Janet', 'Science Fiction/ Double Feature', and 'Time Warp' continue to ring bells long after their echoes ought to have subsided. Put quite simply, Rocky has some stunningly rousing and rollicking songs that just grab your feet and get them tapping.
And Rocky's lost none of its ebullience with this new and enthusiastic cast, and thankfully still retains a rather 'raw' kind of edge. Sitting alongside the other musicals in the West End, it lacks any pretensions to the kind of technological sophistication that is almost a prerequisite to draw crowds to musical productions in the 21st century. And that's exactly how it should be - Rocky needs an almost earthy crudeness to make it work, and that doesn't seem to have been lost on either director Christopher Luscombe or set designer, Janet Bird. For example, there are some neat (and explicit) animations displayed on satisfactorily low-tech monitors.
Creepily camp and gleefully raucous, 'The Rocky Horror Show' is still worth a visit in spite of its advancing years.
What the popular press had to say.....
BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "moderately decent revival." VALERIE POTTER for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "However, although everyone seems to be having a great time on stage, their enjoyment too often fails to convey itself to the front stalls - to the point where the second half drags terribly. " PATRICK MARMION for THE DAILY MAIL says, "Though Christopher Lucombe's production is somewhat over-amped, it is a well-drilled time warp that's worth doing again." TIM AULD for the SUNDAY TELEGRAOH says, "There are many good things to say about the latest revival."
External links to full reviews from popular press
Production photo by Eric Richmond