Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Rocky Horror Show – much-anticipated science-fiction sensation (Grand Opera House until 23 March)

Brad and Janet are on their way back from a wedding. His car suffers a puncture and they walk a couple of miles to a nearby castle to use a phone, not expecting that the owner is a “sweet” Transylvanian transvestite scientist from outer space who has created a tanned and muscular man to be his plaything up in his lab. From there the plot goes full on B-movie science fiction … quite mad, but tuneful enough to have you on your feet dancing swaying along with the Time Warp by the end.

The show’s first chord hits you between the ribs and grabs your attention for a frantic 45-minute first half of The Rocky Horror Show. The music is infectious, played live by a five-piece band perched high above Hugh Durrant’s film roll-shaped set.

As the narrator steps on to the stage to bring some context to Richard O’Brien’s somewhat random plot, a couple of stalwarts in the audience start to join in with the traditional heckles (‘callbacks’) and some Belfast improvisations. Philip Franks copes well with all that is thrown at him – most of it expected – and his retorts include a great line about Brexit and backstops. But based on last night’s experience, there should be a rule that only women are allowed to heckle, since the men who tried last night just guldered stuff that wasn’t funny.

Ben Adams and Joanne Clifton make a good Brad and Janet, with Clifton’s voice soaring in some of the later numbers. Stephen Webb’s vamping Frank N Furter certainly has stage presence, an air of self-importance (pretty vital when you’re standing in front of a thousand people wearing leather pants, holey stockings and suspenders and a corset) and a fabulous voice for Don’t’ Dream It, Be It in the second half.

Callum Evans’ gymnastic background is obvious as the freakishly acrobatic Rocky bounces around the stage. (His understudies must pray each morning that Evans is fit and well to perform!) Ross Chisari’s big song as Eddie was quite indistinct, but his Dr Scott was stronger in the second half. While at times there’s a lot of vocal screeching, I'm Going Home ends with very strong vocal harmonies from across the cast, a lovely moment of calm before the hype builds up for the finale.

Nick Riching’s lighting design is very distinct, albeit overused in the second act, taking full advantage of the fog in the auditorium to splay narrow beams across the audience as well as the stage.

It’s incredible to realise that The Rocky Horror Show was conceived and performed in the 1970s. The original stage version of The Rocky Horror Show premiered in London a few days after I was born. Within two years it had been made into a film – The Rocky Horror Picture Show – and the cult following began.

Is it just me or do 1973 sensibilities jar a little in 2019? As a safe space for dressing up, gender ambiguity and letting your hair down, no one seems to notice that alien Frank N Furter is a sexual predator and quite possibly a double rapist. And the affectionate shouting of ‘slut’ at virginal Janet sounds pretty off in a show whose very narrator acknowledges #MeToo. Shades of “don't you panic / by the light of the night, it'll all seem alright”. On stage, Columbia (Miracle Chance) seems to be the only one to eventually see through Frank N Furter’s abusive smog.

Overall it’s quite an experience. While Belfast is a relatively conservative place and the level of fancy dress among the audience is quite muted, a lot of older men attend wearing their ‘Dammit Janet’ t-shirts from previous tours! The audience was less raucous that I was expecting – maybe that’ll peak on Friday and Saturday’s shows – but obviously enjoyed the in-your-faceness of the provocative performance.

As a cult classic, it’s a well-executed and technically impressive piece of glam rock musical theatre. Whether the original message still has powerful currency in 2019 is less clear.

The Rocky Horror Show continues in the Grand Opera House until Saturday 23 March.

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