Reviews/Musical Theatre

From cult classic to crowd pleaser

23 February 2018

Review: Rocky Horror Show ·
Crown Theatre, 21 February ·
Review by Xan Ashbury ·

As cultural artefacts go, the Rocky Horror Show is fascinating. It’s part rewrite of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and part parody of B-grade horror and sci-fi movies, infused with a camp-punk aesthetic.

While it’s tempting to trot out that term “cult classic”, I think any show which packs out Crown Theatre with middle-aged folk, mid-week is well and truly mainstream. That the musical can do this 45 years after its first production (and 43 years after the film), speaks volumes about its enduring place in popular culture.

At dinner before the show, my friend and two of her sisters recalled how they watched Rocky Horror on VHS at their conservative grandparents’ home every Christmas. They loved its quirky, subversive humour and catchy tunes but were careful to shut the door, because if the grandies cottoned on the game would be up.

Another friend described seeing Rocky Horror at an obscure, now-defunct cinema in the city on a Saturday night in the 90s. The audience members, fishnetted fans who knew all the words to all the songs, were each handed a bottle of champagne on entry. She remembers it as one of the best nights of her youth.

This is the appeal of Rocky Horror for me – that it has become part of people’s personal narratives. For some, those screenings provided a safe space in which to cross gender boundaries or simply to bust some dance moves to songs with “sex positive” lyrics. For some it offered a window into something other than heterosexual monogamy – at a time when that was presented as the norm on TV or at the cinema.

But let’s be perfectly Frank: the androgynous, seductive but tyrannical Frank-N-Furter is a problematic character. He uses deceit and manipulation to have sex with both Janet and Brad. He creates Rocky as a sex-slave. He treats Columbia badly and kills his previous love interest Eddie. Oh, and he’s an alien, who, predictably, dies at the end.

So … he’s hardly a positive representation of diverse gender and sexuality, is he? Says a lot about the homophobic culture in which that character was constructed, doesn’t it? The big question is whether Rocky Horror has played a part in breaking down taboos about sex and normalising diversity.

Clearly, Rocky Horror has broad appeal. The gay men sitting next to me found the whole show outrageously funny and moving. Perhaps their younger selves drew courage from songs such as “Don’t Dream It, Be It”. They particularly loved the sauced-up bedroom scenes between Frank-N-Furter and Brad.

Rocky Horror Show
A rock star: “Rocky Horror” creator and narrator Richard O’Brien. Photo: Jeff Busby.

Rocky Horror’s creator, Richard O’Brien, will be familiar to many as Riff Raff in the film adaption. In this production, he is the narrator. O’Brien is not your average 76-year-old. In skinny black jeans and velvet dinner jacket he presents as a rock star and was treated with the same reverence. His deep, mellifluous voice wooed the audience and cheers went up when up when, after the encore, he sauntered off stage with Rocky in arm.

Adam Rennie (who was Craig McLachlan’s understudy) plays Frank-N-Furter with aplomb. The 2008 WAAPA graduate, who is now based in New York, is technically brilliant and added his own mischievous style.

The star of the show for me, though, was Columbia (Nadia Komazec). Her quirky rendering of the role, complete with laughing-gas induced dance moves, was brilliant.

As a visual spectacle, the show is impressive and songs like “Time Warp” induced nostalgia for 1980s school discos. But I was left thinking that the excitement audiences once felt for Brad and Janet’s sexual liberation has dimmed in these days of trans-visibility, marriage equality, pole dancing and Tinder.

‘Rocky Horror Show’ plays Crown Theatre Perth until 4 March.

Top: Adam Rennie adding his own mischievous style as Frank-N-Furter. Photo: Rob Maccoll.

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Author —
Xan Ashbury

Xan Ashbury is a teacher who spent a decade writing for newspapers and magazines in Australia and the UK. She won the Shorelines Writing for Performance Prize in 2014-17. Her favourite piece of playground equipment is the flying fox.

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