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The Rocky Horror Show

  • Theatre, Musicals
  • Theatre Royal Sydney, Sydney
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  1. The Time Warp in The Rocky Horror Show - Sydney 2023
    Photograph: Rocky Horror/Daniel Boud
  2. Jason Donovan in The Rocky Horror Show - Sydney 2023
    Photograph: Rocky Horror/Daniel Boud
  3. Stellar Perry in The Rocky Horror Show - Sydney 2023
    Photograph: Rocky Horror/Daniel Boud
  4. Loredo Malcolm in The Rocky Horror Show - Sydney 2023
    Photograph: Rocky Horror/Daniel Boud
  5. Ellis Dolan and cast in The Rocky Horror Show - Sydney 2023
    Photograph: Rocky Horror/Daniel Boud
  6. Myff Warhurst in The Rocky Horror Show - Sydney 2023
    Photograph: Rocky Horror/Daniel Boud
  7. Deidre Khoo and Ethan Jones in The Rocky Horror Show - Sydney 2023
    Photograph: Rocky Horror/Daniel Boud
  8. Darcey Eagle in The Rocky Horror Show - Sydney 2023
    Photograph: Rocky Horror/Daniel Boud

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

This cult classic is celebrating its 50th anniversary in Sydney, but does it still hold the subversive brilliance that made it so iconic?

It has been a jump to the left and five decades since Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show made its dramatic debut in a tiny room at the top of Royal Court Theatre in London’s Sloane Square. Half a century later and this shiny, supersonically lit production at the Sydney Theatre Royal is almost an entirely different beast to Rocky Horror’s humble, grungy beginnings. 

It’s astounding, this rollicking rock’n’roll musical centred around the exploits of a transvestic mad scientist alien has been continuously on stage somewhere in the world ever since 1973. For many of us, our first introduction to the universe of Rocky Horror comes in the form of the cult classic 1975 film adaptation The Rocky Horror Picture Show starring Tim Curry (in his iconic fishnet-stocking-clad role as Frank-N-Furter). Passed between generations of curious viewers on beaten-up video tapes and most likely illegal online streams, this wild ride – throbbing with outrageous songs, characters and costumes – continues to be a revelatory discovery for social outcasts, and has played a key role in countless queer awakenings. The evocative lyrics of ‘Don’t Dream It, Be It’ seal it as the perfect metaphor for embracing your true self.

...without a perspective, without moving to respond to the world, you’re not making art

The undeniable cult cred of Rocky Horror means that fans have been shivering with antici- ( know how it goes) since it was announced that the show would be returning to Sydney to kick off 50th anniversary celebrations (and while it’s not officially part of the Sydney WorldPride program, the timing feels pretty strategic too). The fact that it’s only been nine years since Rocky last landed in Sydney, and that that production was marred with controversy, does little to deter people from gearing up to do the time warp again. This musical is just too much damn fun to resist. 

Directed by Christopher Luscombe, who has overseen various international tours of Rocky Horror, this production bursts onto the stage in a high camp flurry. Following naive and newly engaged couple Brad (Ethan Jones) and Janet (Deidre Khoo) as they are caught with a flat tyre and lured into a mansion of debauchery and pleasure by the corset-wearing Dr Frank-N-Furter, Rocky Horror is always a formula for good, raunchy fun. But having been produced and reproduced for decades now – has it become so formulaic that all the grungy, subversive, rough-and-ready brilliance that made it so iconic in the first place has been stripped away?

Hugh Durrant’s sets are shiny and full of tricks; Nathan M Wright’s choreography is exciting, with shocks of phantom dancers bursting out from behind set pieces and tinsel curtains; and Nick Richings’ lighting design is an explosion of colour. At points, lasers cascade across the audience (which all looks pretty impressive, up until a rogue beam hits you directly in the eyeball).

There’s no denying that everyone involved is extremely talented. Henry Rollo (Jagged Little Pill) steals the show as Riff Raff, Frank’s hunchbacked handyman – milking every syllable and every physical quirk, with a powerful comedic presence and belting classic rock vocals to boot. Together with Stellar Perry (Bell Shakespeare’s The Lovers) as Magenta, Frank’s maid and Riff Raff’s sister, this pair is a light (over at the Frankenstein place) of freaky of brilliance. 

Former ’80s heartthrob Jason Donovan is clearly having the time of his life as Dr Frank-N-Furter. From the moment he steps out in ‘Sweet Transvestite’ through to the swan song of ‘Going Home’, he injects the role with a spirited performance and a masterful control of his voice.

However, there’s something uncomfortable about this take on Frank-N-Furter (and just about all portrayals of the character in mainstream productions, to be honest). When done right, Frank can be strangely alluring, charming, and a perfect allegory for how queer and transgender people can feel like “aliens” in this world. (Note: Frank is not a transgender woman, but this character still subverts gender norms and exists under the trans umbrella.) Is it any wonder that Frank would literally invent a man to love him (and relieve his tension)? Meanwhile, through Brad and Janet’s journey, we see how embracing sexual liberation (and perhaps some sexual fluidity) is good for the soul. 

By persisting to cast ‘blokes we’ve seen on television’ to headline Rocky Horror tours, producers end up reducing Frank to a somewhat creepy older man in fishnets – which doesn’t help the scenes where questionable lines of consent are crossed feel any more comfortable to watch. Make Frank-N-Furter sexy again, you cowards!

This production does make an effort to break free of the all-white casting of the cult film we all know and love, however it doesn’t seem to have factored in consideration for the new layers of meaning that are inferred. Loredo Malcolm plays a thoroughly charismatic Rocky with a hilarious edge (you’ve gotta be smart to play dumb that well). Yet casting a Black man as Frank’s scientifically made, perfect masculine specimen adds problematic implications of fetishisation. Similarly, casting an Asian woman as Janet adds an equally uncomfortable layer to the dismissive way Brad treats her. (Really Brad, you can’t remember your fiancée’s last name?) However Deidre Khoo does play an excellent Janet, charting the character from her withdrawn and nervous early scenes into a sexually liberated woman in ‘Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me’, and sealing it with some real belter moments during ‘Super Heroes’ in the show’s final moments. 

Everything has undertones, it's just about whether you take ownership of those undertones. By following the book so ardently, this production doesn’t make way for some much-needed self-awareness – or spontaneity, which is an essential ingredient of Rocky Horror. Audience interaction is another one of those essential ingredients. While the tour’s website encourages it, there was no guidance or encouragement for audience participation on Opening Night, which left swathes of the audience a bit lost and hesitant as they sat politely in their fishnets and French maid costumes. 

As the Narrator, beloved radio and TV personality Myff Warhurst actually had her best moment when responding to a mean-spirited heckle! She’s a warm and likeable presence, but Warhurst’s placement feels akin to Courtney Act's casting in STC's Blithe Spirit in that it becomes clear who is a trained theatrical actor, and who is not. 

You can have all the budget, the bells and whistles, the shiniest set, and all the most talented people (all of which this production has in spades). But without a perspective, without moving to respond to the world it now lives in, you’re not making art, you’re just following a formula. 

Rocky Horror’s characters and themes have been a source of inspiration and recognition for countless outsiders – but when it is reproduced with little imagination, the true spirit doesn't translate. That is not to say that Rocky has always been without its issues (the term transvestite is largely considered a slur nowadays, for example). We can and should celebrate iconic shows like this that make people happy. We can ‘have nice things’, but we can also make them better. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to make it better. Don’t dream it, be it. 

For Rocky Horror fans, it is worth coming down to the lab to see the show’s famous musical numbers performed live by some serious professionals. But if you really want to be it (not just dream it), you better wise up Janet Weiss – and after the show, trot your stilettos on over to one of Sydney’s queer-friendly dance floors or a WorldPride event. 

The Rocky Horror Show is playing at the Theatre Royal Sydney until April 2, 2023. Snap up your tickets here.

Feeling dramatic? Check out the best shows to see in Sydney this month.

Alannah Maher
Written by
Alannah Maher


Event website:
Theatre Royal Sydney
25 Martin Place
108 King St
From $69.90+bf

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