The Rocky Horror show review (Lyric Theatre, Sydney)

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Oh, Rocky! What have they done to you, you magnificent, sexy beast? When did you become so polite? So light? So completely inconsequential? When did you embrace the “party musical” label with such force that you almost completely abandoned your roots as, you know, a piece of theatre? When did one of the most influential, subversive and shocking pieces of queer culture become nothing more than another crowd-pleasing, mainstream musical blockbuster, and end up feeling like Mamma Mia?

This new 40th anniversary production of Richard O’Brien’s seminal cult rock’n’roll musical is basically the cartoon version of the iconic 1975 Tim Curry-led film. There are costumes by Sue Blane which turn the volume up on the film designs — for example, Janet’s pink dress is now a far brighter pink, and she has Carol Brady hair — and a small, versatile set by Hugh Durrant, framed by giant rolls of old film. (The set, which comes from a UK touring production, is far too small for the 2000-seat Lyric Theatre). Visually, at least, it’s all rather sanitised. Where’s the scrappiness? There’s a carefully torn show curtain, but not a ripped fishnet in sight.

The audience absolutely laps up Craig McLachlan as Dr Frank N Furter, and it’s a generous performance in that he gives the majority of folks exactly what they want. But, to my mind, it’s shallow, hammy and entirely lacking in any danger or intrigue. Frank should invite an audience to lean in and occasionally recoil, rather than reaching out to them in every scene. It’s also great to go off-script and respond to the rabble, but it shouldn’t go so far that it destroys your character’s dramatic arc. Frank should have motivations beyond trying to drag a laugh out of the audience with erection jokes. Frank is cheap and nasty, but there’s more lurking under the surface.

To McLachlan’s credit, by the time he reaches the Floor Show, he brings some integrity to his performance and doesn’t try to pull a joke out of “Whatever happened to Fay Wray? That delicate, satin-draped frame. As it clung to her thigh, how I started to cry, ’cause I wanted to be dressed just the same.” But by then, McLachlan has played all of Frank’s sexual exploits and experiments with gender purely for laughs, so it’s impossible to really care. His approach to gender and sexuality is playful, but it shouldn’t be the joke it has become here.

There are some very strong supporting performances, which build up a slightly more interesting world around McLachlan’s Frank. Amy Lehpamer has traced the journey of Janet from innocent virgin to liberated sex kitten with surprising dexterity and versatile, powerful vocals. Her Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me is one of few thrilling moments. Angelique Cassimatis and Jayde Westaby are both fireballs as Columbia and Magenta, respectively.

Kristian Lavercombe’s Riff Raff follows the template set by O’Brien a little too closely, but he belts the bejesus out of the score, while Stephen Mahy’s Brad is fine as the all-American jock, but could do with a little more grunt in some moments.

And if producer John Frost must continue to shoehorn Bert Newton into musicals, his role as narrator is a perfect fit. Newton also had the best comeback on opening night to a heckler who suggested his career was over. Hats off, Bert.

Australia has a strong history with Rocky Horror. The original 1973 London production (in the 63-seat upstairs space at the Royal Court Theatre) was directed and designed by Australians Jim Sharman and Brian Thomson. The Australian production, which opened less than a year later, became legendary. It’s one of the defining moments of Reg Livermore’s career, and people still talk about his Frank. I can’t vouch for his performance in the role, as I wasn’t even alive back then, but the original Australian cast recording is absolute dynamite — raw, rocking and irresistible (seriously, find it on iTunes or Spotify and have a listen).

It’s a shame that the most recent Rocky down under — Gale Edwards’ genuinely fresh take on the show in 2008 — has been followed up with something quite so stale. Edwards’ production was intellectually rigorous, sexy, and yet still managed to give the audience what they wanted as a “party musical”. And it had iOta as a Frank who, while borrowing heavily from Tim Curry, had charisma, power and a respect for the source material.

And that’s what seems so curiously lacking from this production which goes to every effort to reproduce the look and sound (although the sound design is rather tinny) of the film multitudes of fans have come to know and love. Director Christopher Luscombe has fundamentally mishandled the book so that it meanders from cheap gag to cheap gag and song to song.

Despite what your strongest memories of Rocky are, it works because it has an excellent, subversive and witty book about sexual liberation and coming of age. But you wouldn’t necessarily realise that from this production, in which dramatic beats are constantly missed. There’s a brilliantly dangerous moment when Frank hands Brad and Janet two white lab coats after they’ve just been stripped down to their underwear. He says: “Put these on. They’ll make you feel less … vulnerable.” Frank carefully chooses his final word to gently manipulate Brad and Janet. In this production, it’s simply: “Put these on. They’ll make you feel less vulnerable.”

Rocky Horror desperately needs a director who will go back to the words on the page, unpack exactly what they mean — and what they mean today — and take their time considering how they want to tell that story. I believe Rocky Horror is one of the legitimately great musicals of the latter half of the 20th century. It should be a hell of a lot of fun, but it has to be something more. It’s not a shallow piece of fluff, and if your audience leaves with no higher praise than “that was a fun night out”, you’re not doing it right.

The Rocky Horror Show is at the Lyric Theatre, Sydney until June 7. Photo: Stephen Mahy, Amy Lehpamer and Craig McLachlan, by Brian Geach

20 responses to “The Rocky Horror show review (Lyric Theatre, Sydney)

  1. As a gay man – not to mention how transgender or transexual men would feel – I found McLachlan’s lead utterly offensive. Running “like a girl”? Really? It was a “50 Shades of Grey” for the completely unenlightened crowd. And don’t get me started on Janet’s attempt to be Ms. Baltimore.

  2. The positives Eddie ‘”Whatever happened to Saturday Night”, Bert Newton did a good job as Narrator the next positive was when the lights came on at the end of the show. The rest of the show was close to gutter trash. I have seen several RH stage shows and fall in love with the idiosyncrasies of Frank N Furter each time. This time Craig McLachlan as Frank just erked me, too far from the original for a 40th anniversary, crude and vulgar …. RH is not meat to be a cheap and nasty comedy. RKO would be gutted.

  3. I couldn’t believe how awful this was. Craig McLachlan in appalling his acting is all about the making it a joke and a rude one at that! I was embarrassed for him and the other actors having to make it so vulgar just to get a laugh. The other actors are good but the direction is terrible, things seem to happen for no reason and scenes like killing Eddie and the birth of Rocky just seem very random. Frank N Furter is a complex character who has been made into a clown here. I hated it and was glad to get a drink afterwards!

  4. I’ve only ever seen the movie before, but I saw the show in Melbourne and loved it. I thought Craig McLachlan and the whole cast were fantastic. My wife had to see it again and one of her friends went 3 times!

    I think you’re all a bit harsh, myself.

  5. It was the worst Rocky Horror Show I have seen. The Set Up was tacky and Craig was vulgar, not more. He is a bad actor, on stage he is worse. He made the whole production like a bad joke.

  6. Rather sad, obsessive Rocky fan here so excuse the rambling:

    “Rocky Horror desperately needs a director who will go back to the words on the page, unpack exactly what they mean — and what they mean today – and take their time considering how they want to tell that story.”

    I’m going to defend Christopher Luscombe, this is his second production of The Rocky Horror Show and while I’m not this tour’s biggest fan his first production was excellent. He was originally hired by Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Company to take the show back to its roots and rid it of the baggage that had grown through audience participation and under the direction of a previous director/producer in the company. Luscombe was new to musicals and had little knowledge of Rocky Horror therefore treated it as he would any other play and did a lot of research into the music, films and culture of the 1950s-70s that the show is based on and it really showed on stage in the direction, performances and design. It was a very dark production and the characters and emotional content were treated seriously (the deaths for example were played straight and could be quite disturbing, the ending was very poignant). They put a lot of effort into reclaiming the show from the audience participation and David Bedella’s Frank was brooding, dangerous, seductive and in complete control of the audience. The production toured twice in the UK followed by an international tour with a largely Australian cast that sadly never made it to Australia itself, given your comments Ben I think you would have loved it. The success of the production and the back to basics approach was the basis for the Gael Edwards production and the Sam Buntrock’s European tour in O’Brien’s attempt to “reboot” the show after years of dissatisfaction.

    I’ve only seen the current production in the UK so can’t comment on any changes made for the Australian tour (Luscombe’s UK Franks wouldn’t be allowed the freedom that Craig seems to enjoy and his UK predecessor rarely spoke to the audience) but my problem with this production is it feels very anaemic. Luscombe talked in the UK programme about being asked back by the producers who didn’t want to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” yet wanted a new, fun “party production” more befitting an anniversary, as a result I think they’ve ended up with a safe, bare bones version of the previous production. The design doesn’t capture O’Brien’s source material as the previous did, the characters are more two dimensional and the darkness and subtext has been stripped away to produce the fun, lighter version of the show required yet nothing has been added in its place, it could have been a party full of energy and decadence but feels more like a pleasant celebration of an old friend. I do enjoy this production, it’s a fun night out and still feels like a faithful, traditional portrayal of the show but compared to the previous production and the possibilities it all feels rather hollow and I just wish it was that production which had benefited from all of the attention that the anniversary has brought, it certainly deserved it.

  7. Seriously a waste of a 40th anniversary! After hearing rave reviews about the show and Craig, and with his Helpmann Award, I was looking forward to seeing it. But never have I wanted to leave a theatre after 15/20 mins and never have I been relieved to not have actually paid for my ticket. The production was lacklustre at best, the sound terrible with the musicians dominating and vocalists struggling to be heard. The set and costumes reminiscent of an amateur or performing arts high school production. The production lacked direction – someone give the director a compass as he is operating without one! And Craig, his performance as Frank was as about engaging as a first grade recorder recital. His accent morphed between a convincing Frank but when talking to the audience his Aussie twang over road and we were hearing Craig talk to the audience not Frank. Gale Edwards production which starred iOTA, Kellie Rhode, Sharon Millerchip, Tamsin Carrol, Michael Cormack and Paul Capsis embodied the Rocky spirit giving fabulous performances and a memorable night at the theatre. This production is just fairy floss. No denisity or substance which leaves a sickly sweet after taste.

  8. I saw it in Melbourne and couldn’t wait for it to be over so that I could get out. The acoustics were horrendous just to add to the thoroughly dismal production and set. I saw McLachlin play Frank in the 1993 production as a young man and he was excellent. Red Symonds was narrator and it is among my most memorable theatre experiences. So with great excitement I paid quite a lot of money well in advance for the tickets and anticipated another great production – why wouldn’t it be??? It is without doubt the worst theatre experience I have endured and I wish I could erase the memory, because I have always loved Rocky Horror. Shame on all concerned for this cheap exploitation of a great script.

  9. I saw Reg Livermore in the original and in a revival, also Daniel Abineri (who played Tim Curry playing Frank), Iota and Craig McLachlan (in the 90s). McLachlan wasn’t too bad back then, but not a patch on Reg. Reg was always dangerous. You never knew what he’d do next. I remember him licking the bald head of a man in front of me. It’s a shame that it has become safe.

  10. A very fine, thoughtful review, Ben.
    RH didn’t work for me at all and someone needs to put the reins on McLachlan now, as he did everything but chew the scenery and all credibility in his character evaporated as he treated the role like one big joke.
    Frank is meant to be many things, but having endless jokes with the audience like he is doing a nightclub act was just awful to witness. I genuinely felt sorry for the other actors who had to endure his endless hamming, upstaging and scene-stealing – but certainly not in a good way. I saw iOta, Reg Livermore and Daniel Abineri all play Frank in various productions – and Craig is certainly not in any of their leagues. He should know better than this at this stage of his career.

    1. So disappointing. CM’s performance was selfish and soapy. He wasn’t playing frank, he was playing himself playing frank. Absolutely cringeworthy. The only moments I enjoyed were those when CM was not on stage. So glad when he died but then he milked the encore in that Dame Edna voice he seems to have adopted.

    2. I just saw this today and come away feeling like i had been to a high school musical…. with smut.
      Craig was in and out of character to answer set up heckling from the crowd. The props were cheap cardboard. I saw chitty chitty not long ago and theirs were brilliant….
      The show was boring, shallow and a bit cringe worthy. Never again!

  11. Agreed, agreed, agreed. Saw it tonight and, while I had fun, where’s my beloved Rocky Horror Show? I knew I wasn’t signing on for the original production which I was lucky enough to see (as a very young man!) in the early 80s restaging but it needn’t be this damned shallow. There were things I liked about the production and it could have excelled at what it was apart from ONE BIG PROBLEM. Craig McLachlan. There, I said it. I suspect the other 1199 people in the lyric theatre will disagree with me but he just wasn’t Frank. Frank is a crazed, demented, genius, psychopath- not an office party joke piece. And vulgar. Frank simply isn’t vulgar! Some really good performances and I lied Sue Blanes new take on her iconic costumes but I feel really let down.

    1. Please don’t hit me again, Diana! Ha. I have no problem with Mamma Mia. It’s probably the best-written jukebox musical. But it’s subversive or dangerous.

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