When Torben Betts had one actor in mind to play a washed-up pop star, he wrote Murder In The Dark for Tom Chambers

Tom Chambers’ troubled pop star Danny Sierra in a scene from Murder In The Dark. Picture: Pamela Raith

TORBEN Betts first made his mark at a North Yorkshire theatre when Alan Ayckbourn talent-spotted the fledgling playwright and gave him a residency at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1999.

That year, the Scarborough theatre presented the premiere of his debut play, A Listening Heaven.  Now, Betts’s new thriller, the ghost story Murder In The Dark, is heading to York Theatre Royal from September 19 to 23 on Original Theatre Company’s tour, directed by Philip Franks.

“Horror films have been my guilty pleasure since I was a morbid child,” says Philip, who was at the helm of Original Theatre’s touring production of Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d at the Theatre Royal last October too.

“Now is the time to find out whether many years’ worth of jump scares and terrible nightmares can be put to good use. We’ll also see whether my more adult theory – that horror often puts its finger on what worries us most as a society at any given time – will also hold true.”

Betts’s setting is a modern-day New Year’s Eve, when a car crash on a lonely road brings famous but troubled singer Danny Sierra and his extended family to an isolated holiday cottage in rural England.  From the moment they arrive, a sequence of inexplicable events begins to occur…and then the lights go out!  

Susie Blake, Miss Marple in last year’s visit, will play farmer’s wife Mrs Bateman alongside 2008 Strictly Come Dancing champion, Top Hat leading man and Holby City, Waterloo Road and Father Brown star Tom Chambers as Danny, Rebecca Charles as Rebecca, Jonny Green as Jake, Owen Oakeshott as William and Laura White as Sarah. 

Tom Chambers: “One of these flattering moments,” he says, of Torben Betts writing the role of Danny Sierra expressly for him

When the Covid19 pandemic shut down his tour in Dial M For Murder overnight, Tom appeared in Original Theatre’s remotely recorded lockdown film of Torben Betts’s Apollo 13: The Dark Side Of The Moon and subsequently in Original Theatre artistic director Alastair Whatley’s online piece Into The Night.

“About a year later, out of the blue I got a text from Alastair saying he’d commissioned Torben to write a ghost story with me in mind for the lead role,” he recalls. “It was one of those flattering moments you dream of!”

Ten pages arrived, then the full draft, and now here Tom is, two weeks into the tour. “The Dark Side Of The Moon was only 50 minutes. This [rather longer] new play has been really fascinating but also extremely challenging because Torben has written it like machine gunfire, firing off in all directions, so you think ‘who’s line is it next?’!”

Working on the play in rehearsals and now in its early weeks on stage, 46-year-old Tom says: “It’s one of those pieces where, as we’ve gone along, we’ve all thought on our feet, with none of us quite sure at first what it was.

“With its dysfunctional family at odds in a psychological thriller, I knew it was an emotional piece, with all the humour in there too, but you don’t know what you’re dealing with, because it is scary, funny and emotional at the same time, and so you’re not sure how the audience will take it!

“On stage, it’s become more like a dark comedy, and it’s been really interesting listening to the audience reactions and realising they’re laughing from very early on. But there are really scary moments too and a couple of twists that we’re asking people not to give away afterwards.”

Learning his lines has found Tom thinking: “Torben is like Marmite! I sort of love him and hate him at the same time. His script is very interesting, very exciting and an absolute pig to learn.

Tom Chambers, seated, shares a lighthearted moment with director Philip Franks in the rehearsal room for Torben Betts’s thriller Murder In The Dark. Picture: Pamela Raith

“I haven’t talked to him about the part, though he did sit quietly in the corner at rehearsals on a few occasions, typing away, but not interfering. Torben has allowed Philip to shave, trim and manipulate the script, letting the production grow under his directorship.”

In turn, “Philip is one of the best directors I’ve worked with, always very patient” says Tom. “He’s an actor as well as a director, and so he really lets you play with it at first, and then he very carefully re-shapes it, inspiring you with his ideas. He’s like a wonderful conductor working with an orchestra, a fantastic maestro.”

Tom describes his lead role, Danny Sierra, as a “washed-up pop star from 20 years ago”. “To play his character, to be aware of his body language, I approach him as someone who’s been in the limelight, which I’ve experienced: the shiny bits, the pitfalls, the facades, the truth and reality of how jaded he is,” he says.

“I just try to make him human. Like all of us, he tries to justify the reasons things have happened in his life. He’s made mistakes, but he does have a heart, he’s not soulless, not completely selfish.”

Danny has headed to the isolated cottage for a family funeral and must communicate with his brother for the first time in years. “Everything unravels in this old farm cottage, which is like a deserted island with very few creature comforts. That initially turns the play into a comedy, but then it becomes twisted, warped, deranged and strange, so it’s very intriguing!” says Tom.

As for the ghost story…wait and see.

Original Theatre Company in Murder In The Dark, York Theatre Royal, September 19 to 23, 7.30pm plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Age guidance: 14+. 

“Torben’s script is very interesting, very exciting and an absolute pig to learn,” says lead actor Tom Chambers. Picture: Pamela Raith

REVIEW: Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d, York Theatre Royal ****

Doing her research: Susie Blake’s Miss Marple in The Mirror Crack’d, on tour at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Ali Wright

THIS is Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d, but it is Rachel Wagstaff’s play.

For the stage, she has adapted Sebastian Faulks’s novel Birdsong and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (whose 2022 tour was cut short before its Grand Opera House run in York) and co-adapted Paula Hawkins’ The Girl On The Train too.

An earlier version of her take on Christie’s 1962 mystery The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side toured the UK in 2019. Now comes another crack at it for the Original Theatre Company, one that has modern sensibilities to shake up its outwardly old-fashioned mien.

Self-harm, repressed homosexuality and child loss burst through the surface in Wagstaff’s multi-layered drama rooted in the turbulence of fracturing mental health. The thunderbolt is Jane Marple’s explanation of why she has remained unmarried, still consumed by grief at her young love being shot for cowardice when serving in the First World War.

Philip Franks’s production is stylish, sharply dressed, light on its feet, played out in rooms with almost an excess of glass, in reference to the mirror of the title, reflective but also see-through. There may be plenty to hide but it can’t be hidden from view.

Adrian Linford’s open-plan, rotating setting is two-fold, serving as the grand English manor house newly acquired by an unsettling presence, American film star Marina Gregg (Sophie Ward), and her film director sixth husband of eight years, Jason Rudd (Joe McFadden), and as the home of “spinster sleuth” Jane Marple (Susie Blake) too.

Housebound and frustrated by a sprained ankle, she either sits with her knitting or takes to crutches or a walking stick, ever restless both physically and mentally.

 A third, unseen setting plays its part, a new housing estate that “alarms the villagers as much as it intrigues them”. Miss Marple’s home help, Cherry Baker (Mara Allen), has moved in there, and there is more to her than first meets the eye. It was ever thus in Christie’s world.

The price of love? Joe McFadden’s Jason Rudd and Sophie Ward’s Marina Gregg in The Mirror Crack’d. Picture: Ali Wright

Marina and hubby are making her first film in 12 years at the manor house, bringing an entourage that includes loyal servant Giuseppe Renzo (Lorenzo Martelli) and production assistant Ella Zielensky (Sarah Lowrie). Young co-star Lola Brewster (Christine Symone) is acting even more oddly than they are, as the plot thickens.

The story unfolds in flashbacks as Oliver Boot’s Inspector Craddock, sorry Chief Inspector, as he keeps correcting, conducts a murder investigation. Blake’s Miss Marple nudges her way into the case, asking the better questions, frustrating Craddock, who delightfully refers to her as his aunt.

Putting her oar in too is Dolly Bantry, former owner of the manor house, exquisitely played by character actress supreme Veronica Roberts, a superb piece of casting by Ellie Collyer-Bristow, who happened to be watching Wednesday’s performance in the next seat.

Miss Marple’s relationships with both Boot’s exasperated Craddock and Roberts’s dabbling Dolly, forever calling by, are suffused with humour in Blake’s performance, but there is intelligence, a seriousness of purpose, to her marvellous Marple. Kindness, sadness, wit and wits about her too.

McFadden’s Rudd is fiery, protective, deeply concerned for Marina’s mental wellbeing, but what is his motive? Ward’s Marina is damaged, graceful, charming when the moment takes her, but capricious, cold, dismissive…and mysterious. Ice and fire, guilt and regret, where will it lead?

Franks’s direction skilfully balances the humour, the double-act to-and fro of both Marple & Dolly and Marple and Craddock, with the darkness of Marina’s troubles. The smoothly interjected yet jolting flashbacks intensify the intrigue, bringing super-fan Heather Leigh (Jules Melvin) into the plot, although Craddock keeps on blocking the attempts of her husband Cyril (David Partridge) to do likewise in a well-worked running gag.

Why do theatres – as well as TV – keep doing whodunits? A midweek packed auditorium would tell you why: we love a mystery to solve, trying to work it out before the sleuth, and when that story is told as adeptly as it is by Wagstaff with direction and performances to match, then crack on with The Mirror Crack’d.

Original Theatre Company in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d, York Theatre Royal, Saturday, 2.30pm and 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Once she played Margaret Rutherford, now Susie Blake is the new Miss Marple in The Mirror Crack’d on tour at York Theatre Royal

Susie Blake’s Miss Marple in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d, a play where she is on a chair, on crutches and on a stick. Picture: Ali Wright

SUSIE Blake returns to York Theatre Royal to play Agatha Christie’s spinster sleuth Miss Marple in The Original Theatre Company’s touring production of Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d.

She last appeared there in February 2017 in the premiere of Murder, Margaret And Me, cast as Margaret Rutherford, such a memorable Miss Marple on the big screen, as recalled in a Philip Meeks drama that explored the relationship between the actress and queen of crime writers.

Now she stars in Rachel Wagstaff’s new adaptation of Christie’s 1962 novel The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side that aims to bring emotional depth and psychological insight to a story of secrets, loss and revenge, performing in a company with strong Yorkshire links.

Co-stars Sophie Ward and Joe McFadden had regular roles in the moorland series Heartbeat, as did director Philip Franks, last seen in York as the devilishly disdainful Narrator in The Rocky Horror Show at the Grand Opera House in March.

Susie Blake with The Mirror Crack’d co-star Sophie Ward. Picture: Ali Wright

“I’ve always wanted to play Miss Marple, since the 1960s when I saw Margaret Rutherford playing her. Her character performance immediately drew you in,” says Susie, who follows in the footsteps of Angela Lansbury in the 1980 film of The Mirror Crack’d and Joan Hickson and Julia McKenzie in television adaptations in 1992 and 2011 respectively.

“I loved her Lady Bracknell in [Oscar Wilde’s] The Importance Of Being Earnest, her Madame Arcati in [Noel Coward’s] Blithe Spirit. I loved her so much. I know she’s not fashionable any more as Miss Marple but I was drawn in as a child, seeing her as this safe, cuddly lady who would work things out for you.

“I thought ‘that’s what I want to do with my life’ – to tell stories and be part of mysteries because every play is a mystery, isn’t it? You don’t know what’s going to happen until the end.”

Playing Rutherford in Murder, Margaret And Me has “not really” influenced Susie’s own performance as Miss Marple. “Philip, our director, said, ‘This is your interpretation now, Susie, no-one else’s. We’ve got to find your interpretation’.

Susie Blake’s Miss Marple, on the phone and on her stick in a scene from The Original Theatre Company’s The Mirror Crack’d. Picture: Ali Wright

“Miss Marple is from a certain period. Her boyfriend, whom she talks about, was in the First World War, so she goes back quite a long way. My mum was born in 1917, and she and her friends were, you know, ‘good eggs’. They had a certain turn of phrase. So, I met some quite useful people growing up.”

Revisiting Christie’s books has helped Susie to put her stamp on a beloved fictional character. “I’ve been re-reading Pocketful Of Rye and there are some very good descriptions of her in there. I go back to that rather than watching other people playing her to find out what makes Miss Marple tick.

“I’m absolutely loving re-reading the books. The people are so clearly drawn. Reading them all together, like I’m doing, you think: these are a multitude of people that she’s observed. Agatha Christie is a Miss Marple herself in order to work these intricate stories through.”

Asked to summarise Miss Marple’s character, Susie says: “She’s fascinated by people, she’s obsessed with finding out the truth and she’ll go on nitpicking until she gets it. She hates evil and injustice, and she hunts it down. She’s relentless in her pursuit of the truth and will go on digging away and digging away.

Susie Blake’s Miss Marple in her “rather lovely suit” and string of pearls. Picture: Michael Wharley

“Rachel Wagstaff has written a very good script and she’s made Miss Marple a much clearer character: someone who wants to find out the truth. Not in an unkind way but she will go on at somebody, go on delving until she gets what she wants.

“Rachel is a wonderful writer, like how she gives Miss Marple a bit of history, so you get to know why she’s alone. This is her first Christie adaptation; she’s very in with the family and I hope she does more of them.”

In Christie’s story, a wind of change is blowing through 1960s’ England, even reaching the sleepy village of St Mary Mead, where a new housing estate is alarming the villagers as much as it intrigues them. Still more unsettling, a rich American film star has bought the manor house. Jane Marple, confined to a chair after an accident, is wondering if life has passed her by, but a shocking murder demands she must unravel a web of lies, danger and tragedy. 

“Rachel’s adaptation is not what you’re expecting. It worried me at first: are people expecting an old-fashioned Agatha Christie repertory production? But it’s not like that at all! Philip has really brought out the characters, with 12 actors on stage. That’s a lot to deal with and he’s made them very likeable and individual and you kind of don’t want any of them to have done the crime.”

Susie Blake’s Miss Marple sharing a sofa with Oliver Boot’s Detective Inspector Craddock. “It’s like a very good granny and grandson relationship: we bicker!” says Susie. “She’s sitting at home feeling very alone, and then in comes Craddock with this murder. Up she steps, much to his dissatisfaction!” Picture: Ali Wright

Susie’s Miss Marple will spend much of The Mirror Crack’d walking on crutches. “She’s sprained her ankle, right at the top of the show,” she reveals. “I start in a chair, then crutches, then finally a stick. They’re not easy to use, these old wooden crutches – I think they might be museum pieces, beautifully shaped – so I’ve had to learn how to use them.

“I must try not to limp because at my age [72] that could be disastrous. But being on crutches is a good ruse for slowing things down to allow her to work things out!”

Over a long career, “I’ve been very lucky that I haven’t ever had a theatre injury,” reflects Susie. Keeping herself fit, during the tour’s Eastbourne run, she went swimming in the sea each day, chatting with the regulars at the beach huts. Next week, she heads to York, sketch book by her side. “That way you get a good memory of a town,” she reasons.

Susie is working with director Philip Franks for a second time. “We did [Alan Bennett’s play] Kafka’s Dick at Nottingham Playhouse in 1998 with Alistair McGowan in the cast,” she recalls.

“For The Mirror Crack’d, he said, ‘I’ll bring the education, you bring the talent!’, as I’m not well read but I went to [Elmhurst] ballet school, Arts Educational and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art,” says Londoner Susie.

The Mirror Crack’d director Philip Franks: “This is your interpretation now, Susie, no-one else’s,” he advised. “We’ve got to find your interpretation”

“He’s so lovely with actors. He’s given me free rein but made suggestions like, ‘what about if she was at Bletchley Park, doing de-coding in the war, and so she’s intrinsically interested in wanting to work things out, being fascinated in solving things, rather than being ghoulish?’.”

Rather than woolly jumpers and pince-nez, her Jane Marple will be wearing a “rather lovely suit”. “Quite a nice look, with a big collar, a white blouse underneath, a string of pearls, sensible shoes obviously, and no hat because the play moves too fast for me to wear one – and nobody’s missed the hat,” says Susie. “She’s my age, in her seventies rather than in her eighties, in our production.”

Why does Miss Marple’s popularity show no signs of diminishing, Susie? “Almost everything on the telly is a mystery, whatever you’re watching. You want to be taken by the hand knowing that Miss Marple or Poirot will help you work it out,” she says.

“It’s like having a pal, going into a situation with someone by your side. With most shows, you don’t know whose side to be on, but with her you have a familiar friend. And you can read the books again and again and watch the stories again and again and always enjoy them.”

Susie Blake’s Miss Marple in an early publicity picture for The Mirror Crack’d. The hat has since gone. “The play moves too fast for me to wear one – and nobody’s missed the hat,” she says

Best known for her comedy break in Russ Abbot’s Madhouse, her Continuity Announcer in Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV and her regular roles as Bev Unwin in Coronation Street and Hillary Nicholson in Mrs Brown’s Boys, Susie has latterly appeared in series one and two of Kate & Koji (ITV), Not Going Out (BBC One) and The Real Marigold Hotel (BBC One).

Have her roles become more interesting as she has grown older, leading to Miss Marple? “Yes, I think they have – and I’ve probably got better too,” decides Susie. “I’ve never wanted to be a frontliner or a film star. That was never on the cards. Only when you look back, you think, ‘I’ve been busy in my career’. Splendid looks can be quite difficult when you have to do the changeover to middle age. For me, it’s gone seamlessly from girl next door to wives and mothers to grandmothers.”

As for the future, “I’d love to be the next Miss Marple on telly. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

The Original Theatre Company in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d, York Theatre Royal, October 4 to 8, 7.30pm; 2pm, Thursday and 2.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

“I’ve never wanted to be a frontliner or a film star,” says Susie Blake. “That was never on the cards”

Did you know?

The Original Theatre Company’s past productions at York Theatre Royal: Alan Bennett’s Auden-Britten encounter The Habit Of Art, Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s novel Birdsong and Ben Brown’s Cold War political drama A Splinter Of Ice.

Did you know too?

Susie Blake was born into famous acting stock. Her cousins are the actresses Juliet and Hayley Mills; her great-uncle was the late film star Sir John Mills, and her maternal grandmother was Annette Mills, who fronted the BBC TV children’s series Muffin The Mule from 1946 to 1955.

Just one other thing…

How do you think Miss Marple compares to Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, Susie?

“They are so different. They both have the same interrogating mind, but her methods are very much to do with the fact that she’s a little old lady. She gets chatting to people and shows her vulnerability, all the better to hook into what she needs to know.

“It’s the knife edge quality of her mind whereas Poirot never shows any weakness. She, on the other hand, will knock on someone’s door and say, ‘ooh I feel a bit faint; can I sit down?’.”

Copyright of The Press, York

REVIEW: Blood Brothers, Grand Opera House, York, until Saturday *****

Niki Evans, as Mrs Johnstone, and Sean Jones, as her son Mickey, as the Blood Brothers principals reunite at the Grand Opera House, where they previously performed together in May 2011

OUT of nowhere in The Rocky Horror Show’s March return to the Grand Opera House, narrator Philip Franks suddenly mischievously mimicked Blood Brothers. Oh, how everyone chortled.

That’s rich, CharlesHutchPress thought, given that Willy Russell’s tragi-comic Liverpool musical is a vastly better structured show without the fall-away in song quality and story in Richard O’Brien’s stupendously silly second act that seemingly all and sundry chooses to ignore.

The chance to compare the two hit shows with the Jacobean tragedy finales comes quickly with the return of Blood Brothers to the Cumberland Street theatre, and if there is any rivalry, it can only be in the number of visits being stacked up.

Rocky Horror? Lost count, but it must be heading for two full sets of fingers. Blood Brothers? Bill Kenwright and Bob Tomson’s perennial production keeps on giving blood, sweat and tears, having chalked up eight runs since 1996.

The ninth is better than ever, bolstered by the return of Niki Evans to the role of Mrs Johnstone after a decade and the chance to see Sean Jones, so synonymous with Mrs J’s son Mickey, on his “last ever tour” after 23 years on the road on and off.

More on, than off, with only eight of them in total spent away from Blood Brothers, his latest break coming since 2019 to tend to his poorly parents. When impresario Kenwright invited him back for the 2022 tour, Jones accepted, and here he is at 51 “running around as a seven-year-old in a baggy green jumper and short trousers”, promising to keep going for as long as Kenwright wants him. Like Bob Dylan’s never-ending tour.

More on Jones’s performance later, but first, what a delight to see Niki Evans reviving her Mrs Johnstone, the mother with the fateful family secret, in a devastatingly moving performance of pathos and pain, jagged-edged Scouse humour, love and desperate resilience.

For Mrs Johnstone, struggling with too many children on an impoverished Liverpool estate and deserted by her waster of a husband, the discovery she is pregnant again, this time with twins, is too much for her budget on the never-never.

She can only “afford” one more child, not two, she tells Mrs Lyons (Paula Tappenden), the barren wife of a travelling businessman from up the posh hill for whom she cleans.

All too rashly, a pact is agreed, one where she gives away one of the baby boys to the cold-hearted Mrs Lyons, setting in motion the superstition that if twins separated at birth ever discover each other’s existence they will die instantly.

Brothers in arms: Sean Jones, as Mickey, left, and Joel Benedict, as Eddie, in Blood Brothers

Clodagh Rodgers, Stephanie Lawrence, Bernie Nolan, Sharon Byatt, Marti Webb, Maureen Nolan and Lyn Paul have all played Mrs J in York; Evans is the first to do so twice, in her case divided by 11 years.

First time around, in May 2011, your reviewer observed: “Above all others, Evans will stick in the mind, for being the most real. What makes her performance all the remarkable is that the Birmingham mother of two had never seen a theatre show, except for pantomimes, nor heard of Blood Brothers or impresario Bill Kenwright when she was offered the role on the West End stage after making the semi-finals of The X Factor in 2007”.

Eleven years on, benefiting from more rings on the tree of theatre life, Evans remains a natural for musical theatre, more than she was for a burst of X Factor-fuelled pop stardom.

At 49, her voice is even more powerful, her broad face an expressive canvas for so many emotions, played out in a Scouse accent that accentuates light and dark alike. Evans’s council-house upbringing and her experiences as a working mum both bring authenticity to the performance too, not least in her renditions of the show’s supreme numbers, Tell Me It’s Not True, Marilyn Monroe and Easy Terms.

The harshest songs aptly go to Robbie Scotcher’s ever-present Narrator, a Faustian debt collector full of social truths and spooked folklore, as he steers the path of Russell’s 1983 cautionary tale.

In football parlance, Blood Brothers is a game of two halves, as one face of theatre, comedy, is ultimately overwhelmed by the other, tragedy, as it befalls the split-up brothers, scally Mickey (Jones) and scholarly Eddie (Joel Benedict).

Divided by class, their paths nevertheless keep crossing through fate, and once more Jones plays it with all the conviction of a man who believes there is no role in musical theatre to rival Mickey on his journey from cheeky, blissfully innocent child’s play, through tongue-tied teenage love pangs for Linda (Carly Burns), to the forlorn broken adult reliant on mind-numbing pills.

More than ever, you note the changes in his movement, his voice, from skip to slouch and slump, from up to down. Sean, whatever you do next, thank you for making this reviewer laugh and cry down the years.

Benedict more than holds his own as Eddie, the charmer in the making with a rebellious streak that then turns to steely political activism as a councillor. The role is more emotionally contained, to emphasise the contrast in nurturing, but nature permeates the brotherly bond in Jones and Benedict’s performances. Burns burns brightly too as lovely Linda.

Andy Walmsley’s familiar street scenery, Nick Richings’ lighting, Matt Malone’s musical direction and Dan Samson’s sound design all add to the hard-hitting impact of Russell’s unsentimental yet heart-rending doomed drama. Evans and Jones, reunited from 2011 to even more telling effect, make Blood Brothers a Must See once more.

Blood Brothers, Grand Opera House, York, 7.30pm tonight (7/4/2022) and tomorrow; 2.30pm and 7.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 0844 871 7615.

Review by Charles Hutchinson

REVIEW: Fishnet fever as The Rocky Horror Show returns to Grand Opera House, York

Suzy McAdam’s Magenta, Lauren Ingram’s Columbia, Haley Flaherty’s Janet Weiss, Ore Oduba’s Brad Majors and Kristian Lavercombe’s Riff Raff in The Rocky Horror Show. Picture: David Freeman

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.

Innocents abroad: Haley Flaherty and Ore Oduba as newly engaged Janet Weiss and Brad Majors. Picture: David Freeman

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.

The Rocky Horror Show company at large on the 2022 tour

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.

Philip Franks: “Delicious devilry in his topical commentary”

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

Ore Oduba: Highly entertaining in high heels in The Rocky Horror Show. Picture: Shaun Webb