The question that Rocky Horror creator Richard O’Brien has been asked most in his 73 years on this planet concerns what he thinks is the secret of the show’s success. People seem to be hoping for arcane knowledge, that he has a line to the abstract and can divine what exactly it is that has made his odd, subversive 50s-style rock and roll musical the biggest cult theatrical experience and movie of all time. Each time this question is asked he smiles benevolently, and answers very politely, as he is a very well mannered human, that he thinks it’s because the origin story is an eternal fairytale and has existed to intrigue audiences since time began since it is, essentially, a retelling of Adam and Eve (and Babes In The Wood, with a bit of Hansel and Gretel thrown in). There is innocence lured toward corruption by a snake, with human nature making it impossible to resist. For the snake, read: one of the greatest stage and cinematic creations of all time, Dr Frank-N-Furter; and for the apple, well, he’s offering a little bit more than a piece of fruit…
Along the way we have a murder, a touch of incest, transvestism, non-binary gendered characters, the hint of cannibalism, oral sex performed on both genders by the same person, straight sex with a virgin, gay sex with a sex slave, echoes of Frankenstein and King Kong, and the intimation of Americans engaging in Nazi-sheltering, all soundtracked by classic rock and roll. It’s quite a lot to fit into an hour and a half. It was written in 1972, so it was ripe for the times, as rock operas and hippie musicals pervaded. But this show is no Hair or JC Superstar (O’Brien starred in the former and was cast by Jim Sharman, who would later direct both the play and the movie, in the latter). There are no religious parables Godspell-style, anti-war polemics or longhaired hippies. Instead, it’s a science fiction horror tale that sits dead centre on the Kinsey scale and has just about zero gender/sexuality boundaries. Frank is not a woman, nor does he wish to be, nor does he dress as a woman. He is a man in a corset, stockings and suspenders, silk panties and platform heels. He wears manly leather and ladylike lace, delicate fishnet and tough chains. He’s a pansexual alien from, seemingly, a planet of transsexuals in a distant galaxy. He is the hero you swoon over, despite the fact that we see him treat his acolytes like slaves, hack someone to death (off screen) with a chainsaw, then serve the body for dinner. We hang on his every word and mourn when he is sacrificed at the end. If played right, every audience member must want to be seduced by him. That is some anti-hero.
In short, this play and its subsequent film are utterly bonkers with everything but the kitchen sink thrown at them. So tell me, Richard, why do you think it’s all been so successful? You’d forgive him for replying: ‘I really have no fucking idea. If I knew I’d have done it again’.
It wears its 1950s influences on its sleeve without ever being a rip-off; it’s too clever for that. The opening song – sung on stage by an usherette and by a Man Ray-inspired red lipstick covered mouth in the film, Patricia Quinn’s Magenta miming to O’Brien’s voice – Science Fiction Double Feature pays homage to Richard Smith’s childhood, which was spent in the cinema in Cheltenham, where he was born in 1942. He grew up in New Zealand (where he has since returned to ‘retire’), moving there in 1951 and returning in 1964 to become a stuntman and bit-part theatre actor. He chose for a new surname O’Brien, his mother’s maiden name, as inevitably there was already a Richard Smith in Equity. By the time he sat down to write this odd rock musical he was a married man with a baby son. He drew on his love of B-movies for this classic opening song, managing to name check:
The Day the Earth Stood Still, Flash Gordon, The Invisible Man, King Kong, It Came from Outer Space, Doctor X, Forbidden Planet, Tarantula, The Day of the Triffids, Night of the Demon and When Worlds Collide.
Just in one song! It sets out the stall for the rest of the play, which has at its heart a fairly pedestrian premise: an innocent young couple’s car breaks down on a rainy night; they see a house and ask the occupants for help. In both the original stage version and movie they are met by O’Brien’s Riff Raff (looking not unlike a Roxy-era Brian Eno), who lures them in with the promise of getting dry and using the phone. They’ve arrived on a rather special night, for the master’s creature is destined to be born. And we’re off. It’s all a bit Hammer Horror, which fits perfectly as the movie ended up being filmed on the old Hammer lot in Berkshire. With this simple premise comes a fast-moving tale of sex and horror and death, one which must always be driven by the master of the house, Frank, the mad scientist. I can’t say anything new about the remarkable Tim Curry, except that he owns every second of his on-screen performance. There is no moving footage of him on stage in the original 1973 Royal Court Theatre production but fortunately, for posterity, the movie captured in glorious Technicolour every flirtatious wink and facial expression, alongside that rich voice and electric sexual charisma. No actor can outdo that performance: you just have to make it different. Many have tried, and some have been very good indeed (like Jonathon Morris, Anthony Head – Murray’s brother, musical nerd fact – and a few others) but I didn’t think anyone had delivered a performance to rival the original… until I saw the show last week for the first time in 21 years. Step forward David Bedella, a 53-year-old Chicagoan actor best known for his Olivier-winning role as Satan/the Warm-Up Man in Jerry Springer: The Opera and an unlikely turn on Holby City (he’s an experienced West End/Broadway performer, having played Sweeney Todd, Billy Flynn etc.). He has said that he tried to do the English accent and it came out so much like Tim Curry it was abandoned in his first rehearsal in 2006. Using his own American accent, a deep and sonorous baritone for both speaking and singing, it changed the part completely and allowed for a new painting. Since then he has become a fan favourite and the go-to Frank. He played the role for the first time in 2006/7, then again in 2009/10 and was bound to get the call – no doubt over some much more famous actors – for this two-week engagement. I now can’t imagine anyone else playing this part on stage, which is a shame really considering that it’s fairly certain to be the final time both he and O’Brien will appear in it. His Frank is everything it needs to be: flirtatious, filthy, masculine, seductive, rapacious, cruel, funny, empathetic and incredibly, ridiculously, sexy.
My own Rocky Horror history goes back over 25 years. I’m fairly sure I first saw the movie in 1989, so I would have been 12 or 13. Perhaps it was on TV, as it’s just the kind of thing Channel 4 would put on in those days when they were actually fulfilling their own remit of interesting programming and not just reality guff. I fell in love. One might say the two imposing figures of my puberty were Jareth and Frank-N-Furter, who on the surface are not dissimilar characters. Both a little evil yet dominantly alluring, both make tempting offers to innocent virgins, both are banished at the end but appear to survive, both sing and wear skimpy pants and have expertly applied their eye shadow. It’s no wonder I’ve turned out like this. I think it best not to convey exactly how much I enjoy viewing men wearing fishnets and heels, but suffice to say it has informed my tastes to this day, as a devoted viewer of Drag Race and fan of all things androgynous. In 1990 there was a West End revival but I don’t think that I saw Tim McInnerny (from Blackadder) in the part. Memory can be unreliable but I believe that a very odd thing happened when I went to London to see this version. I was all set to see Tim in the role but, unless memory has let me down, he broke his arm the night before and had to pull out. As Frank has no understudy, a stand-in was used: to the extreme shock of everyone present, when his entrance song kicked in Richard O’Brien himself was playing the part. I don’t think he’s ever done it before or since. I recall that Ade Edmondson, a year before he’d debut Bottom, his masterpiece with the late great Rik Mayall, lent a kind of unhinged quality to Brad that had been previously unexplored. Connections abound: Tenpole Tudor played O’Brien’s Riff Raff, and would later take over for him again and deflate The Crystal Maze (about which I could write another article). Jonathan Adams played the Narrator, the part he originated in 1973; for the movie he was moved over to play Dr Scott so a famous name (Charles Gray, Blofeld from Diamonds Are Forever) could take over. What I am sure of is that I saw the next iteration with Anthony Head playing Frank the year after and also twice more in 1994, with Jonathon Morris, who was a revelation. I was also lucky enough to see the 21st anniversary show and witnessed Patricia Quinn reprising her stage and movie role as Magenta, with O’Brien as the doomed biker Eddie.
For the actors, it’s a bit of a strange ‘adult panto but worse’ vibe. There are, effectively, two scripts: that of the play, that of the audience. Heckles are established and well practiced. An actor can barely reach the end of a single line without having something shouted at them that has wildly varying levels of cleverness and wit. Creating space for pauses, getting a song to yourself, allowing comic timing and interaction with other performers are all on shaky, often absent, ground. It must be a weird show to be in, where the audience are such a part of the experience, though you do get to be a rock star for the night. It’s the kind of thing you need a break from, and perhaps that’s why I’ve not seen it live in so long. I love the movie and its exquisite timing, so being surrounded by people screaming out every 10 seconds can be intensely irritating. But, as the song goes, once in a while…
There have been tours in the last decade but they never quite registered with me. However, when I heard that Richard O’Brien was returning to the role of the Narrator, surely for the last time, I was drawn out of my Rocky hibernation and grabbed a ticket for the Saturday night, which I thought would be the last performance but the week-long run got extended to two (good job it wasn’t more, my debit card would have been begging for mercy). What a rush, what a beautiful teenage nostalgic rush it was. By the interval I knew I had to get a ticket to see it a second time. The crowd created a deafening noise and gave O’Brien a standing ovation before he’d said a word. He raised an eyebrow, always the commanding performer, and took all hecklers on with panache. David Bedella, however, is not one to be outshone. I’d heard that he was a fan favourite and now I understand why. The man owned that theatre, right to the back row. By miles, the best stage Frank I have seen, and probably that has ever played it. Interestingly, he’s the first gay actor to take on the part. I can’t figure out why it’s always straight men who play Frank but there we go, an odd fact. No particular reason I’m sure, in the same way as Hedwig (another character that owes a fair bit to Rocky Horror) is fairly often played by straight actors. Everyone played their parts with aplomb and the show was as tight as a drum, as you’d expect and as it has to be given the nature and timing of the audience participation aspects. It rattled along at a breathless pace and the songs seemed closer together than I remember; for that reason, I was struck by their sheer quality. From the iconic There’s A Light… to the blustering Hot Patootie (Eddie’s cameo, Meat Loaf in the film of course) to the classics (Time Warp, Sweet Transvestite, which were reversed in order in the play, changed for the film then kept that way), and my personal favourite, the suite of ‘floorshow’ songs at the end: Rose Tint My World/Don’t Dream It, Be It/Wild and Untamed Thing.
During that run of songs comes a delicate invocation, almost a limerick, of Frank’s origins, which I’ve always found rather sweetly poetic:
Whatever happened to Fay Wray
That delicate satin-draped frame
As it clung to her thigh
How I started to cry
For I wanted to be dressed just the same.
The Rocky Horror Show, an unlikely phenomenon, continues to tour worldwide and play to packed houses. Now that this two-week London run is over it’s off on another national tour (albeit without Bedella and, of course, O’Brien), starting in Brighton at Xmas. Not bad for something that came to be performed by chance as part of a deal: its Australian director Jim Sharman had been engaged to direct at the Royal Court but only agreed on the proviso that they let the little room upstairs be used for this weird sci-fi B-movie musical he had fallen in love with and wanted to direct. Sixty-three people came night after night (including Bowie, allegedly) and it became so successful it transferred to Los Angeles, Broadway and then returned for a year in 1979 to the West End: it ran for nearly 3,000 performances. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) is in its 40th year the longest running movie of all time, but don’t forget it was a flop when it came out until the Waverly Theatre in Greenwich Village started showing it at midnight a year after its release (it still plays weekly there). The rest is history. Somewhere on earth, from Sao Paolo to Sydney, from Cologne to Colorado, it is always playing. As Roger Ebert once wrote, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not so much a movie as more of a long-running social phenomenon.” I was knocked out to see the audience at the Playhouse as engaged and excited as ever; half were dressed like they were going to an amateur fetish night, with plenty of kids half my age seeing the show live for the first time. Of course, every time I enjoy a show and have the chance to see it again I never pass up that chance. So the day after the show – I had been seated in the dress circle, not a bad view at all, if a little obstructed – I got another ticket for the penultimate performance, the matinee. This time on Row C, which was the fifth row, somehow. Proximity is everything.
The events of Saturday 26th were so surreal it would be, as you’ll see, ridiculous to not report them. I was all set to have a long day: a football match at White Hart Lane and then the matinee (oddly, at 5.30; they’re usually at 2.30) before the final show played at 8.30. On Friday, after a glass of wine, my aunt said she’d love to come with. She’d taken me to see it when I was a teenager. Don’t ask how, but she accidentally bought two tickets – K20 and B1 (the seat in front of me!) – and so the spare went to her best friend. Then my cousin came home and we tried to get a ticket for her as well, in D3 this time. So now we were all going, a little comically in four separate seats, three of which were by coincidence very close together. The seat next to me turned out to be free so for the second half we were all pretty much seated together. So, I went to the football (a 12.45 kick off) and it went… poorly. I walked out with 10 minutes to go, which I have not done for many years. In a dark mood, I headed into town and was regaining my composure on the South Bank at about 4.30pm when I got a text from my aunt: “Richard O’Brien, at the stage door, now!”
I jumped up and headed across Embankment Bridge. He was long gone by the time I arrived: everyone met one of my childhood heroes but me. Of course. That was how the day was going. Nevertheless, I was excited to see the show again, and so close to the front. It was again superb, though the crowd were a little dull. Some I suspect had just fancied going to the theatre and weren’t particular fans. They were won over by the remarkable lead, but it put into sharp relief how superb the audience had been the week before. During the first half a slightly bonkers thought occurred to me: I wonder if there are any spares for the very last show? No, I’m being ridiculous. I can’t go for a third time. But my companions egged me on and, at the interval, I went to the box office to check. There was one seat left, H20. Tempting. I went back in and resolved to let fate decide: if it was still there at show’s end I would get it. When I went back I asked if it was, “No, that one sold but one more came in, a return, in K21.” Meant to be. I bought it, had a quick dinner and came back to the theatre, like a crazy person. In my seat by 8.20, I got chatting to the gentleman seated to my right, a wardrobe dresser from Toronto. Then the seat on my left was filled by a lady; we smiled at each other and exchanged pleasantries. She was about my age, dressed in black, leather boots, very slim, long black hair, with some old tattoos (I got an old goth vibe). A short while after, her companions arrived, three men. One of whom I recognised immediately, I was certain I knew him. The show began, again, and was just marvellous. You’d never think they’d only finished the matinee an hour earlier. Tremendously enjoyable. I was resolved to ask her at the interval if the gentleman two seats over was who I thought he was. The conversation was so surreal I have to report it as it happened:
Me: [quietly] Excuse me, but can I ask you, that gentleman seated to your left, I think I recognise him; is it Peter Straker?
Lady: Yes, that is Peter, where do you know him from?
Me: I’m a big fan of Freddie Mercury; they were lifelong friends. For a Queen nerd like me he’s a legend. He even appeared in one of his videos (he’s the one in drag who isn’t Freddie or Roger).
We then made small talk for a few minutes, I asked her where she was from, she said Munich, we chatted about the show and then, the immortal question came:
Me: Have you seen the show before?
Lady: [smiling] Oh yes, many times, I’m Richard’s wife.
- blink -
- pause -
Lady: I’m Richard’s wife, Sabrina.
To say this was an unexpected turn of events would be an understatement. As I tried to remain cool and calm, we then chatted about him and his agelessness, the show (she stopped counting how many times she’d seen it at 200, she was a fan before she met him; they were friends for a decade before they married in 2013), New Zealand, where they live, how tough the flight is, how far removed their rural life is from London, his children and two grandchildren, how wonderful David is as Frank, etc. I told her how much I loved The Crystal Maze and that once I had written to the show asking to be on. The age limit was 16 and I was younger so I got a polite letter back from the producers and a personalised signed postcard from Richard, in silver pen (I have to find it, must be in Manchester in my bedroom somewhere), which I was thrilled about.
She was absolutely charming, very warm. It was all a bit distracting but the second half started and off we went, probably the last time I’d see the show for however many more years. We got up and danced the Time Warp. We cheered until we were hoarse. The show ended, as it has done each time I’ve seen it on this run, with a kiss between Bedella and O’Brien, who leave the stage arm in arm. I felt elated and grateful I’d taken this chance (I’ve never regretted seeing any show more than once). At the end, without being asked, she retrieved my jacket from the floor, and told me what a pleasure it was to meet me. I told her to tell her husband how loved he is in England and she said she would. This is the kind of thing that could only happen to me. The afternoon started badly and ended up being one of my more memorable days. Here’s to 40 more years of Rocky.