I was nine years old in 1992 when my two sisters, my parents and I came to Melbourne from Tasmania to see The Rocky Horror Show with Craig McLachlan as Dr Frank N Furter. We’d watched the 1975 film of the original stage show obsessively, knew the words to every song, and even considered dressing up in our mum’s underwear for the performance. On the night, when the chorus of Rocky freaks and weirdoes, known as Phantoms, lecherously stalked the aisles before the show, I was so scared I had to sit on my dad’s lap. When the show began, though, my sisters and I jumped from our seats in wonder: we were completely hooked into Rocky’s world of excess. An arts degree and many years later, I began to appreciate much more about the show. Its polyphony of sex, desire and gender playfulness are features that, in their ambivalence, remain seductively transgressive.
A fortnight ago – and twenty-two years since that first live performance – I went to the Comedy Theatre to see Craig McLachlan as Frank once more in the final week of the production’s run in Melbourne. As Columbia sings in the show, ‘it was great when it all began/ I was a regular Frankie fan’. I stifled back tears through the first three numbers, laughed at the 50s-inspired comic timing of Brad’s delivery and appropriately gasped when Craig-as-Frank made his famous entrance. Sure, at forty-eight, Craig’s high kicks were a fraction lower and his facial features a little less defined than in ‘92, but these quibbles are only obvious projections of my having aged, too. But as ‘Time Warp’ finished and Craig-as-Frank lurched about the stage, my stomach sank a little. His energy was admirable, excessive even, but something was amiss: Craig’s Frank was a lot less queer and sexy than I remember him being.
Despite the pastiche and humour, the film version of Rocky Horror takes its sex, gender fluidity and queerness rather seriously. This has a great deal to do with Tim Curry’s definitive portrayal of Frank N Furter as a fully fleshed character who we believe is equally attracted to men, women and, we get the feeling, everything in-between. He is Dionysus in fishnets, pearls and a leather jacket, surrounded by a bevy of horny worshippers. And in that cinematic version, it’s not difficult to see why they all adore him.
Meanwhile, here in 2014, Craig put far less flesh on Frank’s bones. For one thing, Craig’s Frank did not saunter comfortably, ‘feeling sexy’ in his heels. Rather, he trotted like a drunk pony stumbling about the stage. This was Craig in heels parodying himself-as-Frank. Indeed, the show was so hyper-aware of its own cult status and its repetition and reputation over the years that it worked as one giant knowing audience wink and nudge. And what suffered most from this lack of sincerity was that Rocky Horror’s emphasis on gender-bending was reduced to nothing more than slapstick.
Rather than camped up, the 2014 Rocky Horror hammed it up, playing the sex entirely for laughs. In parallel scenes between Frank and Janet, and then Frank and Brad in bed – designed to make us see that Frank can pleasure them both equally – Craig-as-Frank appeared to be almost retching after going down on Janet and gagging on Brad. Not only are we forced to assume that Frank doesn’t enjoy going down on Janet, but that he also doesn’t know how to fellate a sizeable member. Of course, this was supposed to be hilarious (and people did laugh) – because, you know, cunnilingus is gross and what man wouldn’t choke on a cock if he had one down his throat? For me, though, all the sex-as-farce made this Rocky Horror extremely unsexy: Frank just didn’t seem to like sex very much.
By making Rocky Horror’s sexual politics slapstick, the production effectively neutered its transgressive potential; we were not meant to take any of its themes, and especially not the character of Frank, seriously. So when Columbia raged at Frank, ‘First you ditch me for Eddie and then you throw him off like an old overcoat for Rocky … I loved you, do you hear?’, it fell flat, because we weren’t given any reason to believe that Frank was charming or dynamite-in-bed enough to warrant such universal adoration.
If those behind the production think the only reason for Frank’s ambiguous cross-dressing and queer desires is to make contemporary audiences laugh, then perhaps Frank’s lifestyle really has become – as Riff Raff says just before killing him – ‘too extreme’. Forty years separates the film from this 2014 stage version, but the dilution of the subversiveness is the most shocking part of the show. Undermining the possibility that the characters’ queer desires might be genuine sends a clear message to the audience: ‘Don’t worry, you’re all safe, none of this is real.’
While I bemoan this most recent version of The Rocky Horror Show as deeply conservative, I have to admit to my own (cinematic) conservatism. Like so many Rocky fans, it was the film’s positive sexuality and gender fluidity that hooked me in to begin with and I don’t want any subsequent version diminishing that. Maybe it’s a fear of upsetting audience expectations that has gradually led to a filing down of the show’s sharp edges, so we’re left with a far more aesthetically comprehensible, albeit uninspiring, product. Rather than being seduced to ‘swim the warm waters of sins of the flesh’, this version asked audiences to remain safely on the shore – which isn’t nearly as thrilling as getting wet.