Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show, Grand Opera House, York, until Saturday. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or atgtickets.com/York.
RICHARD O’Brien’s schlock-horror rock’n’roll musical comedy sextravaganza was let loose on an unsuspecting world on June 19 1973 at the 63-seat Theatre Upstairs in London.
Fifty-nine years later, it has an undying cult status, one sustained in York on three-yearly pilgrimages to the Grand Opera House, where it plays to gleefully reunited devotees and wide-eyed new converts alike, breathlessly keen to undergo their rites of passage at O’Brien’s fantastical freak show.
Judged solely as a piece of musical theatre, it has been surpassed by Rent, Spring Awakening and Priscilla Queen Of The Desert, each better written and without the dip in quality of songs, momentum and storyline alike that nevertheless has never hindered Rocky Horror.
And yet, in our gender-fluid times, O’Brien’s musical has gained new wings with its themes of transvestism, freedom of self-determination and homosexuality, as well as the more timeless tropes of infidelity and loss of innocence.
It does so with its tongue in its cheek, and everywhere else too, with its boldness in matters sexual and sartorial at odds with the global image of frigid, awkward, uptight Blighty, making it a kind of Weimar pantomime for adults.
Its story of a newly engaged, squeaky-clean American college couple, nerdy Brad Majors (Strictly champ Ore Oduba) and sweetheart Janet Weiss (Haley Flaherty) , losing their way in a storm and then their virginity under the seductive powers of castle-dwelling transvestite scientist, Dr Frank N Furter (Stephen Webb), is framed in a bravura send-up of horror and sci-fi B-movies., heightened by O’Brien’s raucous pastiche of Fifties’ rock’n’roll music.
In a show driven by song, set-piece, character and carnal pleasure, the plot can get away with being flimsy, with its unsubtle echoes of Frankenstein in Frank N Furter’s desire to create a new life in the form of the glitter-dusted, bodacious-bodied Rocky (Ben Westhead). What separates Rocky Horror from Rent, Spring Awakening and Priscilla is the glut of audience rituals that accompany performances.
In the city that loves to dress up for stag and hen parties and a Knavesmire day at the races, burlesque fancy dress is not only encouraged but pretty much obligatory, fishnets, pyjamas, Fifties’ waitress outfits and scientist coats, lipstick too, just as likely to be worn by men as women – and the ushers and usherettes too.
Rice, confetti, lighter flames and water pistols have been stripped from the audience’s repertoire of interjections by the safety mandarins, but now the lighters have made way for mobile phone torches, and the saucy shout-outs from the auditorium have become all the more prominent.
Indeed, they happen so much – usually orchestrated and time-honoured from shows past but still with room for the impromptu – that they are becoming like a procession. Oh, for some originality, please, York, in the off-the-cuff remarks, rather than inane crudity in the tradition of a drunken heckler.
To go with those audience customs is plenty of familiarity and continuity within the performing company – and indeed in the presence of Christopher Luscombe in the director’s chair once more for this typically swaggering production.
Kristian Lavercombe is clocking up his 2,000 performance as flesh-creeping servant Riff Raff on this tour; Haley Flaherty has plenty of mileage on her clock as prim prom queen-turned-minx Janet; Stephen Webb spun his “transsexual Transylvanian” Frank N Furter previously in York in 2019, and again he favours sensuality, grace and fruity decadence over camp excess.
The Narrator’s role – the lightning conductor to so much of the audience’s “scripted abuse” – has long been a celebrity vehicle, from the late Nicholas Parsons to comedian Steve Punt and the inevitable Stephen Fry. Now, Royal Shakespeare Company actor, theatre director and television regular Philip Franks is renewing acquaintance with blue smoking jacket and fishnets for the 2022 tour.
He has the golden voice and unflappable air to the urbane manner born, coupled with a quick mind for acerbic retorts, a gift for mimicry and delicious devilry in his topical commentary, whether on Prince Andrew or when sending up Blood Brothers, the Liverpool musical soon to return to the Grand Opera House. He knows just when and how to indulge any over-excitable audience contributions, but the instincts, timing and flourishes of a circus ringmaster always keep him one step ahead.
The pre-tour publicity has surrounded TV presenter Ore Oduba, whose Strictly Come Dancing triumph re-awakened his love for the stage from teenage days. After Teen Angel in Grease and Aaron Fox in Curtains, now he adds geeky American Brad Majors to his post-Strictly musical theatre repertoire. He sings with power, control and aplomb, applies just the right amount of caricature to his square character and looks the part in high heels, feather boas and underpants.
Bewildering to non-believers, like any cult, The Rocky Horror Show demands and rewards exuberant audience commitment from the Usherette’s first entrance, through Sweet Transvestite to The Time-Warp singalong finale, although a first-night altercation in the stalls was going too far over the top.
Review by Charles Hutchinson