Richard O’Brien: The Importance of being Frank n Furter

Rocky Horror Show with Liam Tamne
Rocky Horror Show with Liam Tamne
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SEVENTY-FOUR today, Richard O’Brien is making a cup of tea when we connect. It’s 6am and the man who created the musical phenomenon known as The Rocky Horror Show is at home in New Zealand. He’s an early riser.

It’s become a bit of a tradition that whenever his cult musical comes to town, we have a chat ahead of the visit.

Richard O'Brien of Rocky Horror Show

Richard O'Brien of Rocky Horror Show

Over the years, The Rocky Horror Show has played all the Capital’s theatres. In the 80s it was Bobby Crush who donned the basque and fishnets of its central character, Dr Frank n Furter, at the Playhouse.

In the 90s Jason Donovan could be found strutting his stuff as the Sweet Transvestite at the Festival Theatre, and somewhere in between Darren Day donned the famous Transylvanian heels at The King’s.

When the show returns to the Playhouse on Monday, West End star Liam Tamne, perhaps best known for his appearances on The Voice, steps into the role originally brought to life by Tim Curry.

For those unfamiliar with the production, The Rocky Horror Show tells the story of two ‘all-American’ kids, Brad and Janet, who find themselves at the mercy of the evil Dr Frank n Furter, an alien from the planet Transsexual, when their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, just as a storm hits.

Inspired by the B-movies of the 1950s, O’Brien’s outrageous rock opera has proved a worldwide smash since, introducing audiences to the show-stopping Time Warp back in 1973.

Through the decades, many famous names have starred in the show, but what makes the perfect Frank n Furter?

“Choosing one becomes a very difficult exercise,” says O’Brien. “So I have to be sensitive to the actors’ feelings, but let’s start with Tim Curry. He set the bar rather high and it did become difficult for other actors to follow that.”

So successful was Curry in the role, that O’Brien admits he now finds it hard to recall what he originally had in mind when writing the character.

“Once Tim came into rehearsals, he took over the role and it is very difficult for me to think back, but as far as writing the role was concerned, I wanted the person to be a little bit of Cruella De Vil with a little bit of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible Pt 2... Disney’s Queen in Snow White and various evil people in B-movies, also played a big role.”

All drew on the German expressionist style of movie-making - O’Brien is a fan of its heightened drama, images, heavy shadows and menace.

“I wanted to bring things of that nature to Frank n Furter,” he says. “In fact, I see from the original script that Alice Cooper was mentioned as a thought, so he must have been in my mind. Actually, I got a message from him once, asking if I had based Frank n Furter on him.

“I said, ‘I don’t think so...’ Then I saw this early script on which I’d scribbled his name, so it must have been in there somewhere or other.”

O’Brien, who played Riff Raff in the first production, a role he reprised for the 1975 movie version, adds, “Freddie Mercury would have made a wonderful Frank n Furter, there’s no doubt about that.”

Despite the garish costume O’Brien insists that his creation must never become a drag queen. “We’ve had people who were, shall we say, exhibitionist queens, who have tried to do the show occasionally - not here in Britain.

“But I remember some chap in France many, many, years ago saw it as a vehicle for himself, but it doesn’t work, you see, because when they get to the bit where Frank ends up in bed with Janet... well, it just doesn’t work.

“Frank has to be pansexual, he has to be able to stand on the stage and everybody in the audience has to like him.

“The first time I ever did it, we had spent all day watching an understudy who wasn’t ready. He was suffering; the poor boy was so nervous in rehearsal that he was terrified and it wasn’t going to work.

“It looked like we’d have to cancel the show. We sat down and I kept saying I should take over. But the producers said, ‘Equity won’t allow you to’.

“Then one of our directors said, ‘It’s Friday night. They’re not going to know until Monday. We can sort it out then, so I did two shows Friday and two shows Saturday.

“I said, ‘I tell you what, I’m just going to go next door to the pub and get drunk....

“Later they came through and said, ‘The cast are all here so we are going to put you on now without an audience, do a dress rehearsal, then make our decision after that.’

“So I said, [putting on a drunk voice] ‘Okay...’ put on the frock and exploded onto the stage and I never missed a point. The only thing I couldn’t do was Wild And Untamed Thing, that kicking dance, because I hadn’t been rehearsed - they decided Frank n Furter would do something else at that point.

“That was it really. I didn’t have time to enjoy it, I was too busy remembering lines. Another actor O’Brien recalls playing the role is ex-Neighbours star Craig McLachlan.

“I did Frank for a charity night and Craig came on as Eddie,” he recalls. “Craig came downstage There was a look on his face that told me he was thinking, ‘I’m playing the wrong role here. I should be playing that role.’

“Many years later he did finally get it and I said to him, ‘I knew that night.’

“Craig was very different Frank. He pushes the boundaries of good taste, and bad taste, right to the limit... and adds about 10 minutes to the show with his interactions. He knows how to play an audience and was wildly successful in the role, but it was a very different Frank n Furter, you could forget subtleties but he was very entertaining.”

So what advice would O’Brien give an actor taking on the role for the first time?

“Watch a lot of the old movies with all the great divas; watch all those dreadful people that were dragons yet we remain fascinated by them.

“All people we love to hate in a way, that’s the kind of creature Frank n Furter has to be. Ruthless. Ambitious. Not at all caring about anyone else’s feelings, completely self-centred and yet ruthlessly charming. That charisma has to be there so that people like him.”

The Rocky Horror Show, Playhouse, Greenside Place, Tuesday-Saturday, various times, £17.90-£56.90 (+£4 transaction fee), 0844-871 3014