There’s little more disappointing than a glossy and aggressively superficial production of a show that has in its bones a history of lively, scrappy-camp subversion. The Rocky Horror Show, which has just opened in Sydney following smash engagements across the country, is loud, boisterous, and ultimately meaningless.
Heading the void is Craig McLachlan, a Frank N Furter who, rather than comfortably embracing his role as the seductive master of the house, seems to leap forward with open arms and a cocked hip, screaming for attention. This sets the show up with an odd sense of dissonance; he’s charming, but he’s a clown, almost sexless – it makes, well, basically everything that happens after his entrance harder to believe.
Part of it is probably an unfortunate consequence of his attempts to stay in front of the music. The sound design is basically a wall of noise, relentlessly loud and terribly indistinct. Lyrics are lost all over the show to the collective sound wave, and the mix muffles almost every nuance in the score. McLachlan goes bigger to try to overcome the wall, shatter it with his exaggerated affectations. It doesn’t work.
At which point does a knowing, loving portrayal of a queer person and a queer story become lazily, stereotypically pseudo-funny? It’s in this production, somewhere halfway through “Sweet Transvestite”.
The beauty of Rocky Horror initially was its injection of queer, risqué and liberation to the sterile and polite sexual presentation of an era spanning from about the 1940s to the 1960s. With 1970s rock music backing songs built with elements of 1950s pop and doo-wop, the story was gleefully, deliberately, a take-down of an oppressive society, combined with the tacky hilarity of B-grade horror films. Rocky Horror celebrates the freak and ‘others’ the standard presentation and lifestyle, and it laughs at us, and it laughs at itself.
That’s why it’s so frustrating that in Richard O’Brien’s new production (Richard O’Brien himself!), it feels a bit like we’re laughing at the freak, the queer, the others. It hasn’t flipped entirely the other way around, it’s not entirely that extreme – it’s just messy. That wonderfully layered, clever, subversive message of the show from its initial outing has been entirely lost. It’s now basically a commercial giant, with smooth edges so no one accidentally hurts themselves when they get close to it.
When a show is this shaky at its core, it’s hard to recover. The Rocky Horror Show never does, because it doesn’t want to recover. It’s going to stay in its new lane, and we’re just going to have to accept it.
But there are good things, shining performances to cling to while you strap yourself in for three separate “Time Warps”. The first is Amy Lehpamer as Janet, with her divine voice and subtle comedy; she’s fully committed to the story and to Janet’s awakening. Her “Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me” is legitimately fun, and her clear, sparkling voice manages to, for the most part, come through the sound design in this signature number unscathed. As the other half of the pair, Stephen Mahy acquits himself well as Brad; there’s a refreshing sense of fun to his and Lehpamer’s “Dammit Janet” because they meet each other in its sincerity and make it funny.
But the star turn in the show is Angelique Cassimatis, who draws eyes and attention every minute her Columbia is onstage. With her excellent singing voice, disarmingly strong dancing, and solid acting chops, she is leading lady material. She’s a grounding force in the wilder scenes; there’s something so appealingly real about her, no matter what’s happening on stage around her. It’s a gift to the production and this production should feel very grateful to have her.
This is a more of an audience experience than anything else. The seats are lined with red feather boas, you’re encouraged to dance, and of course the talk-back lines from the film screenings are encouraged. McLachlan and Narrator, TV’s Bert Newton, bore the brunt of them and handled them well – even when the response from an audience to the Narrator’s line “What was over?” was the great old go-to: “Your career!”
The set by Hugh Durrant, wound and accented with unspooling reels of film, marks out the tightly-marked Lyric Theatre space (even Rocky Horror is too small for that behemoth stage) and it’s appropriately broad-strokes, if not especially interesting; cartoonish for the opening scenes with Brad and Janet; vaguely science-y for the lab; and something suggesting opulent for the rest of the mansion.
The audience was loud and through the (obligatory) standing ovation at curtain call, people everywhere were jumping to the left and stepping to the right in a “Time Warp” dance-a-long. There are going to be a lot of people who have fun at this.
But it’s not too much to ask for the show to find something enduring about its roots and bring it to the stage. It’s not too much to ask for this show to be about something gloriously backwards, determinedly different. It’s not too much to ask for the show to delve into the generous amount of content in its book, its history, and its characters. This show is all just flash and painted frenzy, preening and posturing. The Rocky Horror Show’s soul has gone AWOL.