The Rocky Horror Show – Review – Hull New Theatre
By Rachel Howard, September 2019
I don’t imagine there are many keen theatre-goers left who would class themselves as Rocky Horror virgins… but my friend and I are, and as we don our fishnets, sequins, big hair and red lipstick, we ready ourselves for our very first experience of the hit musical.
The location for this momentous occasion is Hull New Theatre, on what I worried might be a fairly quiet opening Monday night. But as we walk through the main doors, I quickly realise this isn’t your average theatre performance. Having fallen foul of the “dress up” game before (nothing more awkward than being the only ones in fancy dress!), I am taken aback by the number of people who have braved a dreary, cold night in all manner of fabulous costumes. There’s a buzz in the air and I’m excited to see what all the fuss is about.
The Rocky Horror Show made its theatrical debut in 1973, but the success really picked up speed after the release of the film adaptation in 1975. Written by the legendary Richard O’Brien, the show has been performed all over the world almost continually since its launch. Famous for its flamboyant characters, costumes and musical numbers (“It’s just a jump to the left…”) the show regularly sells out and sees die-hard fans travelling the world with an insatiable appetite for what O’Brien himself refers to as an “alternative panto” – rowdy, raucous and risqué – what’s not to love!
For those who haven’t seen the show or the film, the storyline centres on a newly engaged couple, Brad and Janet. After their car breaks down in a storm, they take shelter at the home of transvestite scientist Dr Frank N Furter, who is in the process of unveiling his new Frankenstein-like creation in the form of a muscle-bound Adonis named Rocky Horror. It is here where our lead couple not only meet a bunch of eccentric characters, but also end up losing much of their innocence in scenes that are definitely more adult-friendly than your average musical!
Tonight’s performance is narrated by the actor Philip Franks. Perhaps most famous for his role as the dithering yet lovable Charlie in the classic sitcom The Darling Buds of May, this role displays a very different side to the actor. Audience participation is a key part of The Rocky Horror Show, and much of that is driven by the narrator. Devoted fans know exactly what to shout out and when, and the mark of a narrator is how well he can banter with an audience yet hold his own on stage. Philip Franks manages this balance perfectly. The story never falters, but his quick-witted responses, local references and downright filthy ad-libs keep us all in hysterics from start to finish.
Taking centre stage as the larger than life Frank N Furter is none other than Duncan James, one quarter of the hugely successful noughties boy band, Blue. I must admit I was a little sceptical about this casting. I wasn’t sure the voice would be strong enough or the characterisation real enough, but boy was I wrong! This guy commands a stage and then some. Within seconds of his dramatic arrival on stage, he embodies Frank in every way. In fact, I struggle to see how anyone else could take control of such a mad story all the while dressed in little else than a pair of stockings and a basque – now that’s talent!
James Darch and Joanne Clifton are perfectly cast as Brad and Janet. Starting off the show as a naive, innocent couple, we follow them on their journey as Frank quite literally sheds them of their repression and opens their eyes to a whole new world. Clifton, winner of Strictly Come Dancing in 2016 alongside Ore Oduba, brings an effortless finesse to the stage. My one gripe would be an occasional lack of enunciation during the musical numbers, but as you would expect, her stage presence and movement are fantastic.
Darch combines an endearing geeky quality alongside brilliant comic timing, not to mention some serious vocal talent. Kristian Lavercombe is spellbinding as Riff Raff, Frank’s spooky servant; and Miracle Chance as Columbia brings quite possibly the most energy to a character I have ever seen on a stage. You have to see it to believe it!
The musical numbers are, of course, highlights of the show – none more so the the iconic ‘Time Warp’. Within the first few beats of the song, we are all on our feet recreating the steps that have somehow become embossed on everyone’s brains whether they’ve seen the show before or not. Other standout numbers include ‘Sweet Transvestite’ and ‘I’m Going Home’, the latter bringing some raw emotion to an otherwise high energy, upbeat performance.
Special mention must also be given to the band, set and costume design, all of which bring the story to life in vivid technicolour. Set designer Hugh Durrant uses a sweeping reel of film as the main background, creating a focal point and also providing a discreet balcony for the superb band, directed by George Carter. Sue Blane, costume designer, took inspiration from Philip Prowse’s love of blood and glitter to create some of the most outrageous, flamboyant and downright fabulous costumes I’ve seen in a musical.
As far as pure entertainment goes, you won’t find much better. But, on a serious note, the significance of this storyline, first written more than 40 years ago, is perhaps more relevant today than ever. In a time where many people are striving to be accepted for who they really are, this is a story of liberation and courage. As Dr Frank N Furter says, “Don’t dream it. Be it.”
So, as a Rocky Horror virgin, did I enjoy it enough to repeat the experience? Without a doubt!