40 years old? Time really is fleeting. But madness has not taken its toll on Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show, still the king of cult camp classics. Craig McLachlan walks away with the show as louche lab rat Dr Frank-N-Furter, amping up the innuendo and smut to levels that match the loudness of the music and the brightness of the lights.
Surrounding McLachlan with a cast that is highly talented, but, perhaps, a little too fresh, John Frost presents this recent UK touring production from Ambassador Theatre Group. Theatregoers looking for an upbeat party atmosphere will surely love this production, and should prepare to spend the evening on a dizzy high. More traditional music theatre lovers, however, might be overwhelmed by the high volume and bright, in-your-face lighting. The King & I is coming in June; this is not it.
McLachlan’s experience in the role of Frank-N-Furter, spanning an incredible 22 years, ensures that he is well placed to judge every eyebrow-raising smirk and phallic suggestion to a point that strays just beyond the realms of public decency. Quickly proving himself a master of the impromptu audience response, McLachlan takes any and all heckling and interaction in his confident stride, endearing himself to the crowd all the more along the way.
To its eternal credit, Rocky Horror Show has never granted its rights to amateur companies, hence paving the way for countless professional revivals the world over. This production is slick and sharp, with its UK origins indicated in its almost pantomime-like sets and direction. While the humour and chutzpah of the whole affair are greatly enhanced by the confidence and experience of McLachlan, the time-honoured humour and character of the piece are largely undermined by overly loud volume as well as blinding lights. The assembled cast have a wondrous range of abilities, but these are largely dampened by the loud, overly produced sound design that makes everyone sound like the same tinny recording. Nuance and inflection, snatches of which are heard in the book scenes, do not have a chance to shine through in the singing. This is the sound reproduction and amplification you would use for performers who cannot sing a note, making it very frustrating when the abundant vocal talents of the cast are clearly known.
Tim Maddren copes best with this onslaught of sound, supporting his vocals with crisp, cheeky facial and physical expressions that add plenty of originality and interest to his portrayal burgeoning wimp Brad Majors. Maddren has the privilege of one of the only quiet moments of the night when Brad laments the strain on he and Janet’s relationship in “Once in a While.” Melbourne stage sweetheart Christie Whelan Browne neatly contrasts her statuesque beauty with a perky 1950s innocence that makes Janet’s sexual awakening all the more believable. Her rendition of “Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me” is a sexy hoot.
Despite the fact that they never seem to be in any actual danger, Brad and Janet’s “journey” is the clearest aspect of the storytelling. The couple’s pair of sex scenes with Frank-N-Furter is the comic, um, climax of the night, although McLachlan’s excessive mugging and padding here means that the humour of Frank-N-Furter using exactly the same dialogue in each scene is lost. Also curiously lost is the impact of seeing the pair, and other characters, in fishnets and corsets for the floorshow finale. Perhaps the moment is just too well known, but the scene just felt predictably expected rather than salaciously decadent. Loud volume is a problem here, not just because the words of “Rose Tints My World” cannot be understood, but also because the volume prevents the audience from hearing each other’s reaction, which can give the feeling you are watching the show in a vacuum.
Erika Heynatz has an original take on the Usherette, making her a breathless, wide-eyed movie fan rather than a seedy, all-knowing vamp. Contributing a gleeful energy to the stage, Heynatz gives a glimpse of her comic chops when Magenta finally has some dialogue in the final sequence. Young New Zealand actor Kristian Lavercombe brings a committed intensity and warped physicality to demented butler Riff Raff, a role Lavercombe could easily re-visit for many decades to come. Ashlea Pyke completes the morbid mansion trio, her sunny vitality bringing a necessary character element to the underwritten role of Columbia.
Nicholas Christo, a talented character actor with leading man looks, expertly delivers a pair of distinctly contrasted roles as punk delivery boy Eddie and cautious wheelchair-bound scientist Dr Scott. Brendan Irving is like an illustrated guide to the male musculature system come to life as Rocky. Tony Farrell, a name sure to be familiar to long term Melbourne Theatre People readers, is utterly charming as The Narrator. It must be noted, however, that with past alumni including Red Symons, Molly Meldrum, Derryn Hinch and even Kamahl, the absence of stunt casting in this role indicates a massive lack of effort and imagination from the producers.
Vincent Hooper, Luigi Lucente, Meghan O’Shea and Angela Scundi give strong support as the chorus of Phantoms, although it is another point of frustration that the individual performing gifts of these stage talents are lost under the matching dark wigs, make up and costumes they all wear.
Gather some friends, have a few drinks and get set for a fun night out with Rocky Horror Show.
Rocky Horror Show plays at Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, until 13 July 2014.
Photos: Jeff Busby
This review published on Theatre People 27 April 2014.