The Rocky Horror Show, review: Congress Theatre, Eastbourne, until June 1

The Rocky Horror Show. Picture by Richard Davenport
The Rocky Horror Show. Picture by Richard Davenport

How do you get to pin the ‘cult’ label on a musical?

Plenty of shows have claimed that status, but there is possibly just one for which the status could have been invented. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Rocky Horror Show.

When unknowing newlyweds Brad and Janet rolled into the Congress Theatre this week, they found it transformed into the castle of a mad scientist, and….well, most of you know the rest. And once welcomed in by Riff Raff, Magenta and Doctor Frank N Furter himself, there is no escape from an evening of mayhem.

In musical theatre – that happy world where most of life is sunny and all of it is hummable – there is nothing that quite compares with this show. It tramples all over conventions and revels in the outrageous. And it is great fun.

Hundreds of the faithful will be making the pilgrimage to the Congress, but there is always room for new converts.

Richard O’Brien was an out-of-work actor when he wrote the show, to keep himself busy in long winter evenings. By the summer of ’73 the Royal Court – who else? – had agreed to stage it, and the rest is history.

This production, directed by Christopher Luscombe, has been touring forever, and if anything the brashly energetic, blindingly garish spectacle just gets better.

The punters lap it up: a loud, flashy tribute to the horror B-movies, with an utterly crazy plot, plenty of sex and lashings of transvestism. Is it offensive? Well, you can’t claim admission to Frankenstein Castle on your National Trust season ticket, but as long as you know what to expect, you’ll not be offended.

As Narrator, Steve Punt has just the right tongue-in-cheek tone, responding with detached assurance to the usual audience repartee. Joanne Clifton shows all her breathtaking Strictly skills, and much more, as a Janet who soon loses her delicious naivety, while James Darch’s Brad is brilliant, not least with his soaring vocals.

Dominant in every sense, Stephen Webb holds the stage and runs the show as Frank N Furter, in and out of some astonishing costumes. The simulated sex – under a gaudy pink duvet – seems raunchier this time, and also funnier. High camp never got any higher than this. Callum Evans is an absolute wow, bringing his medal-winning gymnastic skills to the Rocky role.

Great support, too, from Kristian Lavercombe as a skeletal Riff-Raff, from Laura Harrison and Miracle Chance as respectively Magenta and Columbia, and from Ross Chisari whose Dr Scott has worrying hints of sanity among the demented chaos.

Ensemble numbers feature imaginative choreography from Nathan M Wright, and George Carter’s splendid band, high above the stage, keeps the numbers thundering along. And a word for Nick Richings, whose lighting design dazzles, bathing both stage and audience in lush pinks and deep magentas, as well as some explosive rocket-ship reds and yellows.

The audience, as ever, divides into the slightly sceptical, the enjoyably neutral, and the fully-dressed decadents. But by the final encores, all are on their feet. The Time Warp? Oh go on, let’s do it again.

Click here to read our interview with Joanne Clifton.