‘The Rocky Horror Show’ // Athenaeum Theatre

‘The Rocky Horror Show – 50th Anniversary Production’ was hot (patootie).

What comes to mind when you think of the year 1973?

A notable landmark in history, it is known for being the year that the Sydney Opera House opened; the first mobile phone call was made; and Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King’s ‘Battle of the Sexes’ tennis match. However, for theatre fans around the world, 1973 is a key year for another reason. It is the year ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ first premiered on stage and has been ‘time warp’-ing its way into people’s hearts ever since.

As its 50th anniversary approaches, ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ is back on Australian shores, ready to delight Melbourne audiences once again with its romping spooktacular extravaganza. Setting up camp at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre for the winter, this golden anniversary production of the beloved show is sure to paint the theatre-loving city red (or rose coloured, if you will).

Debuting on 19 June at the Royal Court’s Upstairs Theatre in London, ‘The Rocky Horror Show’, written by Richard O’Brien, garnered success almost immediately. The original production was relocated to the twice within its first year – to the 230 seat Chelsea Classic Cinema in August, then to the 500 seat King’s Road Theatre three months’ later. It is in the latter theatre that ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ would find its home for the succeeding six years before once again transferring to London’s Comedy Theatre.

During this time, the show had transferred to Broadway and inspired the equally beloved film adaptation, ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ (all of which starred the eminent Tim Curry). The show tells the story of the newly engaged Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, who on their way to see their old Science teacher, happen upon the lair-like castle of Dr Frank-N-Furter and his peculiar group of followers. What transpires is a debauchery-filled night neither Brad nor Janet will likely forget.

Thanks in large part to its campy nature and satiric love letter to B-grade science fiction and horror movies, both the stage show and its cinematic counterpart have become cult classics. ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ is particularly noteworthy for its portrayal of sexually liberated characters and sexual fluidity – issues that were considered taboo at the time. The show has also amassed a large queer following during its lifespan, with its themes of liberation and self-acceptance. With such a passionate fanbase, it comes as no surprise that ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ (and ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’) has been in constant production since its debut half a century ago. It is recognised as the longest running rock-based musical in history, while its film counterpart has had the longest running debut due to it still being shown in cinemas to this day.

While ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ is never far from a stage or screen, it is a production no less worthy of an anniversary celebration. And with 2023 marking the show’s 50th year, Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre has pulled out all the stops in its anniversary production.

Often cited as ‘camp’ and ‘gothic’, the aesthetic of ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ is iconic. There is an immense pressure to ensure the set design is accurate to the feel of the show, particularly when there is a passionate fanbase to impress. In the case of 50th Anniversary Production, fans are likely to satisfied. Staging the beloved show in the heritage listed Athenaeum Theatre seems appropriate. Recognised as the oldest public institution in Melbourne, the Athenaeum provides a fitting location for the long-running musical. With art-deco and late 19th century influences throughout its infrastructure, the Athenaeum offers a resonance that compliments ‘Rocky Horror’ nicely.

This feeling continues as audiences take their seats in theatre. Early 20th century architecture lines the stage, providing an ambience of intrigue and mystery. As the velvet curtain pulls back, audiences are likely to be struck by the production’s effective use of space on the relatively small stage. Earlier stages of the show utilise pop-up and adjustable sets, crafted by Set Designer Hugh Durrant, which emphasise the campy innocence of Brad and Janet’s quest. The cartoony effect of these sets may read as a little jarring, but ultimately service the show well, particularly as the narrative and overall tone transitions to Frank-N-Furter’s castle. Frank-N-Furter’s castle – namely the ballroom and laboratory sets – are the undeniable standouts, with adorned hunting trophies and illuminous décor a-plenty. Durrant places small tributes to earlier iterations of the show within the set design, including a fish tank-style television and an overhanging illuminated film strip. Such easter eggs are certain to be appreciated by long-standing fans.

Similar to the set design, the lighting, sound, and costume design choices advocate a loving homage to the original production. In the case of the former, Lighting Designer Nick Richings contrasts the strange, unorthodox mood with bright lighting, highlighting the juxtaposed nature of the story. For the most part, Richings’ lighting choices are well considered. While individual spotlights do not always provide the right ambience for scenes, the use of florescent and vibrant colours throughout group numbers provide the show with a delightful, energetic lift. Such lighting effects are best displayed during the high octane numbers such as ‘Time Warp’ and ‘Hot Patootie’. Richings’ decision to marry such opposing effects highlights what ‘Rocky Horror’ does best – bring light (no pun intended) to darker tones of the horror and sci fi genres.

Supporting the lighting’s vibrancy is the energetic musical score, arranged by Richard Hartley. Each number is performed by the live band with grandiose intension. While at times the musical levels can overpower the cast’s vocals, Hartley’s excellent orchestration of ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ makes up for this in its energy and acoustics. Early entrant “Dammit Janet” is perhaps the show’s most audially successful number, demonstrating a wonderfully cheeky interplay of melody with comedic timing.

Sue Blane’s costume design for ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ is equally praiseworthy. With a show filled with as many iconic characters as ‘Rocky Horror’ is, the need to encapsulate their personalities accordingly is paramount. The 50th Anniversary Production does not break any new ground in its costume design; however, Blane demonstrates a thorough comprehension of what makes the show legendary in the first place – uncanny audacity of the highest order. Bold reds and blacks are used consistently throughout to accentuate the origins of the show as a satire of 1930s horror and sci-fi films. Unsurprisingly, the sequined garbs of Frank-N-Furter, Columbia, Riff Raff, and Rocky himself epitomise the spirit of the show most effectively.

Making use of limited stage space can be a challenge for any production; however, the 50th anniversary production of ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ rise to the occasion. Director Christopher Luscombe and Choreographer Nathan M Wright jointly establish an all-encompassing world within the confines of the Athenaeum’s stage. While this means Wright’s choreography is not as grand as it could be (particularly in heavy ensemble numbers such as “Over at the Frankenstein Place” and “Wild and Untamed Thing”), the energy and passion expressed throughout these sequences aids in their performance. This is aided by Luscombe’s direction, which imbues a true affection for the classic musical. The production reads as a stage show produced by fans for fans – a true testament to the legacy of O’Brien’s creation.

As is customary with any anniversary production, the cast of ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ are colourfully memorable. Australian soap royalty Jason Donovan dons Dr Frank-N-Furter’s iconic fishnet stockings once again, after successful turns at the role in 1996 and 2014. Slipping into Frank’s high heels appears comfortable to Donovan, who relishes the opportunity to unleash his inner mad scientist. Myf Warhurst, in her first musical theatre role, steps up as Narrator with a quiet, rational confidence. Fresh off her Eurovision commentary duties, Warhurst proves herself to be quick-witted and unafraid of audience heckling, fast cementing her place within the production.

Josh Gates, Catty Hamilton, Erica Wild, Jackson Reedman, Keane Fletcher, and Kristina McNamara ooze spooky charisma as Frank-N-Furter’s Phantoms, Dance Captain, and Swings, respectively. Ellis Dolan hams up his dual roles of Eddie and Dr Scott with conviction. Loredo Malcolm, as the eponymous Rocky Horror, offers an earnest physicality to the role sure to stick in audience’s minds. As Magenta and The Usherette, Stellar Perry evokes a playful resonance which audiences are sure to warm to instantly. Henry Rollo’s portrayal of the creepy butler Riff Raff demonstrates an eye-catching flair for comedically sinister timing. Darcey Eagle shines as the shrill-voiced, conflicted Columbia, showcasing an unreserved respect for the source material.

Ethan Jones and Deidre Khoo are definitive standouts, however. Both understand that these roles demand a balance of nuance and comedy, which they provide in abundance. Jones’ endearingly sardonic portrayal of Brad Majors showcases his versatility. His physical humour correlates particularly well with the initial cartoonish atmosphere of the production. Khoo, similarly, provides Janet Weiss with a rambunctious flair for comedy. Khoo imbues her performance with dynamism, affording this anniversary production with a fresh, youthful energy.

While ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ may be about to celebrate its 50th birthday, this golden anniversary production proves it is still as vivacious as it was in 1973. With youthful energy and classic charisma, this “Science Fiction” show is sure to entertain legacy fans and ‘virgins’ alike and will definitely bring people back for a “Double Feature.” Get ready to “Time Warp”, Melbourne. ‘The Rocky Horror Show – 50th Anniversary Production’ is “going home”.

‘The Rocky Horror Show – 50th Anniversary Production’ performs until Sunday, 30 July 2023 at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre. For more information about the show, or to book tickets, visit The Rocky Horror Show’s website.

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