THEATRE: The Rocky Horror Show
Debbie Hathway gives herself over to the absolute pleasure of chatting to the cast of the latest SA production of The Rocky Horror Show
"It’s just a jump to the left/ And then a step to the right …" The lyrics — and certainly the tune — from The Time Warp, arguably the most popular song from Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show, are enough to get even the most hesitant audience members tapping their feet. Perhaps even dancing in stilettos and fishnet stockings too — gents and ladies alike. Such are the ways over at the Frank N Furter place.
The story unfolds as Brad and his fiancée, Janet, seek help from Dr Frank N Furter when their car breaks down in the middle of a storm. It’s an adventure they will never forget, from the second Riff Raff throws that door open. The same can be said for audiences around the world, who still can’t get enough of the experience almost 50 years after the premiere of the 1973 stage production and the subsequent cult film.
But what makes this stage musical version so special? It’s got a lot to do with the cast. The entire two-hour production is so captivating it feels like it’s over before it’s begun, leaving the audience gasping for more. The performances are engaging and believable, the choreography is tight and the lighting and sets are dynamic. The show could well be a catalyst for those who buy into the "don’t dream it, be it" notion to quell their doubts and step into a future where they feel more positive about who they are and where they’re going.
The latest local version of Rocky Horror, presented by Pieter Toerien and Howard Panter, is arguably the best we’ve seen in SA. We chatted to Craig Urbani (Dr Frank N Furter), Kate Normington (the narrator), Didintle Khunou (Janet, opposite Anthony Downing as Brad) and Kristian Lavercombe (Riff Raff) to find out more about their experience.
Surprisingly perhaps, the creative team abroad had never heard of Urbani, despite a successful international career, so he had to audition like everyone else. "And I was happy to do so," he says. "I am pretty much in love with all aspects of this character. The make-up, the heels, the outrageousness and the comedy all appeal to me hugely. I still have to pinch myself sometimes to remind myself that I’m actually doing it for real in a brilliant production."
Urbani says the role is challenging physically and vocally, though "it does sit in a very rich and comfortable place in my voice. It’s demanding in that there are expectations of the actor to find his own way of playing this part while still paying homage to the immortal Tim Curry version. And I think getting the balance right between masculine and feminine is key to the charm of the character."
He’s wanted to play Frank for 20 years. "It’s a bucket-list part and one that I’ve felt ready to play for some time now. I had a complete grasp on how I would play him before I even set foot in the rehearsal room."
Rocky Horror "virgins" be warned. There’s a script for you, too, so don’t be alarmed when your neighbour unexpectedly starts shouting at the characters on stage. Google the callouts if you really want to immerse yourself in the experience and look up the dress code while you’re at it. Think glam rock (sequins, feather boas, corsets and garters) or the more conservative "Brad and Janet" look.
Normington auditioned specifically for the role as the narrator, one that has traditionally been played by a man. "I wasn’t sure myself what they initially wanted but after reading and talking it through with the director, he made it clear that it was a simple interpretation of an academic, nonpartisan, observing the action with curiosity, all wrapped up in an RP accent," she says.
"RP basically means received pronunciation and is a mix of different [British] regional accents that has softened from the plummy, cut-glass accent it once was. It was closer to the Charles Gray interpretation of the original movie, but with a female. We settled on the documentary style, to keep it unobtrusive but informative. Enough to set the scene."
In the UK, audience members shout out constantly. There is usually an actual script for them, but in SA audiences are a lot more restrained. The narrator is allowed to respond. "I’ve had a couple of fun moments, and some tightrope ones I wish I hadn’t indulged. You make a call in the moment," says Normington. "The musical is so extreme, even bizarre, so my role has to set a sort of standard that people will relate to. I am a part of the action, in that I comment on it, but I am not of it, except at the very end."
Khunou and Downing as Janet and Brad are a great match and their chemistry translates well on stage. And when it comes to her interaction with Rocky, played by Jarryd Nurden, Khunou produces the best on-stage orgasm I’ve ever seen. She laughs when I comment on it. "It’s my favourite scene. I have so much fun doing it. Rocky Horror is funny and entertaining but it is also rooted in truth. The audience experience the story through Brad and Janet’s eyes, so it makes sense to portray them in a manner that makes them relatable and real."
Khunou says Janet is "such a great character to embody. I’ve also seen the wonderful portrayals of Janet in the past, and I’ve challenged myself to stretch my creativity and make her my own."
Lavercombe has performed in Rocky Horror more than 1,700 times — more than anyone in the show’s 47-year history. He’s never come close to being bored, or even thought about it for that matter. "When I’m preparing to go on stage, and when I’m on stage, I’m always operating with reasonably high levels of adrenaline.
"I still feel the same now as when I first performed the role nearly 10 years ago. I also love the job and I’m a huge fan of the show and its audiences — they have easily kept me entertained along the way."
I ask how he has evolved the Riff Raff character. "I think it’s impossible for characters not to change as you do more performances. I know Riff Raff a lot better now than I did 1,500 performances ago. He really is like an old friend, as strange as that might seem," says Lavercombe.
"Things also change with different casts. I’ve performed with at least 10 Frank N Furters over the years and they are all so different that you have to discover new things with the new actor. Attempting to do a cookie-cutter performance with a new cast just doesn’t work. Part of the excitement for me is finding new things in something you think you already know inside and out."
Is he ever tempted to respond to the callouts from the audience? "Within the world of this production of Rocky Horror, the only character who can ad lib and respond directly to the audience is the narrator. Frank N Furter can occasionally raise an eyebrow and acknowledge them, but that’s about it. There is a tradition for Rocky Horror audiences to call out during the show. It can be very tempting to respond to them, but it would be totally inappropriate for Riff Raff to do that," he says. "I was lucky enough to have a short stint as the narrator last year. It was so great to finally be able to speak back to the audience who had been shouting callouts at me for years.
"I couldn’t believe how much of a release that was."
The creative team behind the show is equally brilliant. It is directed by Christopher Luscombe and choreographed by Nathan M Wright. The set is designed by Hugh Durrant, music arranged by Richard Hartley, lighting designed by Nick Richings and costumes by Sue Blane. If you want to start the new year on a high note, make a point of booking for this memorable "alternative pantomime". Let the madness take control.
• The show runs at the Teatro, Montecasino from January 17 to March 1