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Fresh, subversive, essential

Daily Telegraph (Sep 2015)

The applause that greets Richard O’Brien when he walks out on stage to take a supporting yet pride-of-place part in the phenomenon he created, which made his name and for which he will long be remembered is of a kind you seldom hear in a theatre: thunderous clapping mingling with a roar of approval that takes on a life of its own, refusing to abate. 

It may not be world-event news, O’Brien coming back to “Rocky Horror” – to play the role of the Narrator for the first time in more than 20 years – but for those who get to witness it, it really might qualify as something to tell those nominal grandchildren about.

Since the show was spawned in 1973 at the Royal Court, generations of theatre-goers and (via its screen spin-off) cinema-goers have been seduced by its sui generis mish-mash of sci-fi/horror-flick spoof, rock ’n’ roll pastiche and transgressive, cross-dressing abandon. I took ages to be persuaded it was my cup of tea, but caught on it on tour a few years ago and became a surprise devotee, although I’ve yet to don corset and fishnets.

It offers a rare invitation to a loud, deranged party from which you don’t emerge quite the same, whether or not you go the whole participatory hog – ie doll up like a fright and interject the smart-aleck/smutty backchat that’s integral to the fun. (You’re very much licensed to heckle.)

In short, O’Brien’s mutant offspring, which has moved from cult-status to closet-mainstream, has added greatly to the gaiety of nations. Despite seeming to embody trash culture, it now looks indispensable – and its unapologetically silly signature number, Time Warp, with its accompanying, preposterous, frenetic actions, may last til Doomsday. 

Standing just outside the fray, as if orchestrating it all, is the Narrator. Will the role ever find a more perfect match? “I’d like to take you on a strange journey,” O’Brien drawls, with aristocratic command, cigarette in hand, garbed in smoking-jacket, drain-pipe trousers and black boots – a bald skull atop a beanpole-frame; sinister, freaky, charming.

Tucked away at the Playhouse, this limited London run is being mounted to enable a first, and one-off, broadcast to cinemas – it’s being billed as “the world’s biggest Time Warp”. At this charity gala on Thursday, O’Brien will actually be sharing the role with celebs of different stripes – Anthony Head (yippee), Stephen Fry (double yippee) and Emma Bunton (hmm) – which might dilute the power and poignancy of his involvement (he’s now 73, and not immortal).

No matter, though: what’s going on elsewhere in Christopher Luscombe’s production – touring later this year – is as good as it gets. It’s a coup in itself to have David Bedella reprise his turn as Frank-N-Furter, the crazed, carnivalesque scientist (and “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania”) at the heart of the madcap carry-on, involving the creation of a half-brained Adonis called Rocky Horror (Dominic Andersen, a rippling he-man in posing-pants and booties). 

Bedella is salacious, pansexual mischief incarnate. He beds in swift succession the hapless, all-American visitors to his spooky pile – Brad and Janet (Ben Forster and Haley Flaherty, the perfect cardboard couple). Plucking imaginary pubic hair from his mouth, fighting not to corpse as he plays to the gallery, Bedella exudes a knowingness that’s the show’s trump card. He’s superbly supported by Kristian Lavercombe as his cadaverous servant Riff Raff (played by O’Brien in the film).

Given its brazenly rough and ready nature, it’s easy to dismiss Rocky Horror as the show that time (and taste) forgot – hailing from a bygone age, when sexual permissiveness was young, craving nostalgic indulgence. Yet, as re-revealed here, it still feels fresh, experimental, subversive to its bones. Essential, in fact.