Richard O'Brien, a young London actor working in a
now-forgotten play at the Royal Court Theatre in 1973,
amused fellow cast members during dull moments in
the dressing-room with songs he had written:
Touch-a-touch-a-touch-a touch me, I wanna be dirty
Chill me, thrill me, fulfil me, creature of the night!
He told them of a vague idea for a musical of the space age and
the sexual revolution, based on the Frankenstein story.
The songs and the idea became, of course, The Rocky Horror Show.

Seventeen years earlier, the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square had played the nurse at the rebirth of British drama when John Osborne's Look Back In Anger open to an astonished and electrified public. The plays of Osborne, Arnold Wesker. Harold Pinter and David Storey were mostly seen There first.
     But even at the Royal Court. Rocky Horror was something new. One of the actors to whom Richard O'Brien sang his songs was Christopher Malcolm, who was to be Brad Majors in the first production.

"Richard had a very simple, brilliant idea". Malcolm recalls. "A straightforward story about a mad scientist from outer space who is trying to make a perfect male for his own delight. Two innocent young Americans come across the scene and are drawn into his web of madness. Very simple story. It's just that the mad scientist happens to be a sweet transvestite from Transylvania."
The first script was little more than an outline, only 15 pages. O'Brien. with the director and designer — Jim Sharman and Brian Thomson, both Australians — turned
it into a piece of theatre. It was a smash hit in London and New York, and in I975 the same production team made The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Of all the crazy cults of a crazy century, the Rocky Horror cull is perhaps, the most genial and innocent. Though it is largely young heterosexuals who go to cinemas in fishnet stockings and Mack corsets, the play celebrates homosexuality and editorialises against straight, missionary position. sanctity-of-marriage sex. The tone is of children with a marvelous new toy:
and the toy. of course, is sexual liberation. It is a product of its lime and. for gay men. now represents a lost and golden age.
While Richard O'Brien was writing his songs in London. 22-yearold Nigel Triffitt was directing For-tune and Men's Eyes at St Martin's Theatre in South Yarra. Melbourne. St Mar-tin's, though on a vastly smaller scale than the Royal Court, had also been a nursemaid to serious non-commercial theatre, but had become encrusted in its past and immobilized by its blue-rinse patrons. These old ladies liked Bernard Shaw and Noel Coward, Nigel Triffitt was a hit of a shock.
Maybe two-thirds of Australia's top theatre directors are gay. Some, like Richard  Wherrett  and Nigel Triffitt. are prepared to say so. Fortune And Men's Eyes was a wise, moving but tough play about homosexual relationships in a youth training prison. Triffitt's direction of his four actors made for a production which, in its way. was ground-breaking The blue-rinse ladies were amazed.
Twenty years later. Triffitt is Australia's top razzmatazz director, designer of commercial music theatre, whose last major project was the revival of Hair. He has learnt to play to the crowd.
Three years ago. the performance rights of The Rocky Horror Show reverted to Richard O'Brien. Howard Panter and Christopher Malcolm (the original Brad, now a producer) bought shares and mounted a new London production Australian promoter Paul Dainty decided to produce an Australian revival and a year ago approached Triffitt
"He then promptly went off to try to hire Baz Luhrmann". says Triffitt, "but that didn't work out and so I got the job. From the moment he decided to go with me. Dainty has been immensely supportive under not inconsiderable pressure from Rocky Horror Show Incorporated, who wanted anybody else but me." Triffitt's relationship with Christopher Malcolm and Howard Panton began badly and got worse. "I'd been flown to London with this model in my hand, on my own. sent into the lion's den. I showed them the set. They said: 'It's too big. it can't fit on any known stage' I said: 'Get real, boys!' I just took them on."At ten o'clock on a bleak winter morning. with a week and a half in a rehearsal room already behind them.
The Rocky Horror Show cast walk into a sub-arctic Comedy Theatre for the first time and see Triffitt's extraordinary set.
He has designed a theatre-machine, a revolving lower of wood, metal, plastic and neon which fills most of the stage and culminates with a turret and a weather-vane half-way up the fly tower. As it revolves and as its sides swing out and away, it becomes in turn a castle, a ballroom. Frank N Furter 's lab and a Transylvanian rocket-ship. Triffitt puts it through it's paces and the actors clap They clamber in, on, through, around it. They stand back and look: they go up and touch it. This infernal machine will be the centre of their lives for months to come, as they follow it around the country on a national lour.
Everyone is wearing coats and scarves. Someone has forgotten to turn the heaters on. and the freezing theatre seems to get colder as the morning progresses. It's not good for dancers or tempers but everyone, including the director, is trying to stay happy.
Triffitt begins his rehearsal with Brad and Janet (Stephen Kearney from Los Trios Ringbarkus and a phantom standing in for Gina Riley) in the scene in which they abandon their car in a storm and approach the castle. The director, standing on the stage's lip. turns to the auditorium. "I need a musical director. Where's Conrad'' Will somebody find bloody Conrad'' His place is here. Someone have a serious talk with him. please!"
As assistant stage managers comb the unfamiliar theatre, the two actors start their scene without music.
There's a light
Over at the Frankenstein place
There's a li-i-i-i-ight...
Conrad returns. He had been in his dressing room, copying out musical scores. Triffitt turns to me wryly: "See what an old prick I've become?"
As the music starts, and the mechanists perfect the timing of the set's revolve, performers return from their warm-up."My phantoms are back! On stage, please, phantoms'"
At last, this production — after months of planning, talking, building and wheeler-dealing — is beginning to look like a piece of theatre. The actors play. This is every child's performance dream come true: showing off in public and being paid for it. They are overacting outrageously, trying out their roles, finding the limits. Discipline, scale, come later. This is the time for fun.

 

Chris Kirby as Rocky

"Throw open the
valves on the sonic
oscillator!

Increase the
power reactor input

three more
points!"

yells Craig
McLachlan in his thin
tenor.

The music
swells, the set revolves
and a neon cage

holding a hugely tall
and muscled black
American

 

swings
forward

 

...it's Rocky

 

Nigel Triffitt was never a Rocky Horror freak "My attitude to the people who do that cult stuff late on Friday nights at the Valhalla is, get a life. What's the matter with you? Take up knitting! Jesus Christ, get a life! I'm also 42 years old and crazes de la jeunesse are not of interest to me at all."
Christopher Malcolm, in contrast, revels in the cult antics which in New York and London include ritual interjections from the audience. "They shout out not only responses to the actors, but lines between the lines being said on stage. It's quite an unbelievable thing. The performers have to be really in charge of their roles. The only person who can answer back with impunity is Frank N Furter. There's a line when Janet says. 'I don't like men with too many muscles'. And the whole audience shout. Just one big one! 'And so Frank N Furter is quite within his rights to say back. 'Well, it would rattle in your mouth, dear!'"
"I saw it in 1975". said Triffitt. "in Melbourne. I didn't like it very much and I remember thinking what a tacky old production it was I remember, prior to that, staying with Jim Sharman in his house after he'd done it in !.London and having him enact "Sweet Transvestite" on his coffee table for me. I'd never seen the film. Never had any interest in it whatsoever Prior to doing the show I did watch 20 minutes of the film and parts of a videotape from the (Malcolm/Panter) London production. And the new London production was shit, just un-watchable crap."
"Throw open the valves on the sonic oscillator! Increase the power reactor input three more points!" yells Craig McLachlan in his thin tenor The music swells, the set revolves and a neon cage holding a hugely tall and muscled black American swings forward. This is Christopher Kirby. who plays Rocky.
Kirby lakes a radio microphone and sings the familiar words: The sword of Damocles is hanging over my head...
Christopher is singing flat. It ain't no crime, warble the rest, right on the note.
And I've got the feeling someone's going to be cutting the thread
Still flat. Badly flat. Rocky is being chased around the stage by Craig McLachlan and trying, foolishly it seems to me. to get away. During several runs through of this song there may be a note that Kirby sings in tune but if there is I don't notice it.
Oh. woe is me
My life is a misery
Oh. can't you see
That I'm at the start
Of a pretty big downer.

"Can we give Christopher some notes to guide him?" says Triffitt to the pianist. Plink. plink. goes the electric piano.
Conrad Helfrich. the musical director, comes forward. "Now this time", he says to Kirby. "concentrate on the singing Don't worry about your acting. Do the moves, but give all your attention to the singing."
Once more, from the top. This time. Kirby is a little less flat. Still off key. but less off key than he was.
"We'll probably put a track over him". Triffitt tells me quietly, then turns back to the stage. "Now. The bottom-whipping scene!"
"Your favourite!" carols the cast in unison.
"There have been very few arguments in this production". Triffitt says, "but when there have been arguments they've been quite good ones. I'm too volatile for anybody to argue with. basically "
At 11 o'clock on the cold and depressing first morning in The Comedy Theatre, after getting off a plane from London at 5am. Christopher Malcolm walks down through the stalls. Triffitt turns and introduces him with great but studied politeness to the cast. Malcolm has come to Melbourne to safe-guard his investment. It's in the contract.
For the next two days Malcolm, sitting in the stalls with his walking-stick beside him. has many helpful suggestions about how Triffitt can change his concept. He is convinced Australian audiences will behave as Londoners and New Yorkers behave, and call out the same lines, His suggestions arc often not made in quiet conversations but out loud, in front of the cast and sometimes directly to them. It is a director's nightmare.
On the third day, they have the first of several major rows. Triffitt wins.
"We had to put up with that — person — from England making my life a complete bloody misery for two weeks". he tells me later. "But it's part of the territory when you're dealing with musicals it's millions of dollars and they want to make sure of their investment. It was a complete pain in the arse for me on every possible level. I could say a number of things to you and they would all be off the record and completely useless. He did make a number of extremely worthwhile suggestions."
Five days before the public is allowed through the doors, the technicians move in. A sound-mixing panel is erected at the back of the stalls, and musicians appear in the orchestra pit for long and amazingly loud sound-checks.
As lighting director David Murray works his complicated but transforming magic, the beams from remote controlled lights whiz, around the theatre as their moves are programmed into a machine. For a day or so. the actors are not needed.
The set. which under hard white work-lights was interesting hut earth-bound. becomes a product of the imagination, a dream-vision. The actors are infected by the dream, and their performances gain an edge they have not before possessed.
"It's another layer, you see?" says Triffitt. "The lights and the sound are about layers six and seven. Another couple to go and we'll be there. Then we'll see if it all works."

For him. the stresses of this production have been building up. He has been desperately tired, fighting to stay awake through rehearsals which demand continual creative invention and technical concentration. "By the time something opens", he tells me. "I'm always sick to death of it. and I just wish it would go away."
Theatre directors, unlike film-makers, never have the chance to come back to a work a year or two later when it's party forgotten, to see it as an audience sees it. "I only ever see things as a series of mistakes."
The next day. some of the costumes arc-ready. Craig McLachlan appears at the top of the turret in the spotless white frock and natty cap of a Red Cross nurse. Nobody has seen it before, and they laugh loudly. "That's very funny, really funny", says Christopher Malcolm.
Technical runs are usually interminable, dull and full of problems. This one goes smoothly and the feeling of accomplishment infects the cast. As they all sit in the stalls for their afternoon coffee break Alyssa Jane Cook (formerly of E Street). who plays Columbia, makes a formal but genial little speech: "I would just like to say that I am really pleased to be in this with all you people".
There is paranoia in the Paul Dainty office that journalists will portray Frank N Furter's sweet transvestite as a personal kink of Craig McLachlan's. The homophobic London tabloids would love to imply that this blond antipodean hunk is actually a poofter. "Craig was an incredibly dangerous piece of casting", says Triffitt. "and shock­ingly dangerous for him. I'm really pleased with what Craig does. I hope people realize how extreme a thing it is he does and how well he does it. The assumption is that he's untalented. large and gorgeous. It's a very hard part   to play and I think it is a considerable accomplishment. It's a star part and the audience reaction indicates he's living up to that. "The bravery of it. going from soap star to gay sex symbol, is a very considerable thing to do. He's completely heterosexual and absolutely content in   his heterosexuality Which is why he can play it. If you're secure in your own sexuality. somebody else's isn't a threat."The star, though, will not play Frank N Furter forever. Paul Dainty — and Nigel Triffitt, looking forward to his own fat royalty cheques

— hope it will last on national tour for two years. McLachlan  will do the initial Melbourne and perhaps. Sydney seasons. The next Frank N Furter   is likely to be Boy George.
"Now that's really dangerous casting",   said Triffitt.
On the afternoon of Rocky Horror's first preview, Nigel Triffitt, the actors, the technicians — even the Paul Dainty office staff—are at a peak of stress. Tempers are kept tightly in check behind the thinnest   of lips. "This is far worse than the official opening night". Triffitt tells me. "This is the first audience, and we have to hope everything works. Preview audiences   aren't paying full price, but they are  paying customers and they quite reasonably expect a good show. It's no  good leaping out in front of the curtain if everything falls in a heap and making excuses. As soon as opening night's over. I'm off to Be Bee's  (a gay resort Cairns) for a good long rest. I'm out of this place!"
That night, the bright lights of showbiz under The Comedy Theatre's awning illuminate the first people who have been prepared to risk cash to see Triffitt's excursion into sexual and theatrical nostalgia. All the previews have sold out. This is a suburban crowd: lots of pullovers, very few formal theatre-going clothes, nobody at all in Rocky Horror paraphernalia. And they're straight. So far as I can tell, there's not a faggot in sight.
Inside, in the unused box to the left of the auditorium. Triffitt sits alone Above him. on lop of a three-metre tower of scaffolding, is a follow-spot operator. Michael Rennie was ill
The day the earth stood still.
The audience is enthusiastic, expecting fireworks. Linda Nagle, dressed as a movie usher, winsomely sings the opening  number to promise a night of fantasy and diversion,
Science fiction
Double feature
Picture show
Oh-oh-oh-oh.

Nagle is good. Not too much, just enough, get the customers warmed up. They love her. Up in his box, I see the director smile. Stephen Kearney and Gina Riley, as Brad and Janet, set the tone of the evening. They perform, rather than act. Then is no attempt to create credible characters. They are often hilariously funny but the laughs exact a price. We can't believe.
Peter Rowsthorne's Riff Raff, which had begun rehearsals as a mere imitation of Richard O'Brien's original now has a manic integrity of its own. It's like Basil Fawlty on speed.
Craig McLachlan appears, in fishnets, corset and satin knickers, to tremendous cheers. He looks terrific — very sexy — but the tabloids which wonder about his sexual orthodoxy are clearly wrong. This is a straight man camping it up. He does it with aplomb, and sings surprisingly well, but a gay man would play this pan differently.
Christopher Kirby. as Rocky, is singing live and his voice has improved to an acceptable level. In nothing but a G-string. he is the evening's second object of desire. The audience's reaction proves a black Rocky, the negative of McLachlan's blond Frank, is an inspired piece of casting.
But because the show reaches top speed so quickly it has nowhere else to go. Half an hour in, the audience's enthusiasm has waned just a little. The applause is a little less loud. The laughs less generous. It's as if they're missing something but don't quite know what.
Perhaps it's participation. The audience interjections, though traditional in Britain and America and firmly expected by Christopher Malcolm, don't happen. Only one woman calls out at all, and in the absence of others she merely seems a nuisance A fundamental assumption of this
production has been proved wrong. Without participation the over — the — top performances lack justification. An audience expecting a play gets,instead, a pantomime. When Frank dies, zapped with a laser by the morality police, choreographer Chrissie Koltai has provided a full Royal Ballet Swan Lake expiry.
But McLachlan isn't a dancer. The move is clumsy and too long. A man along the row from me wipes a tear from his eye, but for me there is no shock and the show's crucial moment is spoiled
Next week, a Monday afternoon photo call. Ponch Hawkes shooting for Outrage. is the only stills photographer but half a dozen television crews populate the stalls. "Lots of TV cameras out there", notes Triffitt. "This pleases us."
McLachlan and the others go through "Sweet Transvestite" time after time, full-bore. Then it's Kearney and Riley for "Over At The Frankenstein Place" But the revolve keeps turning the wrong way and Adam, the stage manager, repeatedly rushes on waving his arms and shouting "Stop!"
'It goes the right way during the show ". jokes Kearney. "Hasn't gone the wrong way yet."
Hawkes. a respected show business photographer and Circus Oz survivor, knows almost everyone and gives them hugs. The lighting director is an old friend and gives her more light. Only the publicity woman is tense and unfriendly.
Later over coffee, I expound my theory that although Craig McLachlan sings very well indeed, looks terrific and represents an inventive casting decision, he doesn't have the charisma to dominate the show.
Hawkes waits until I've finished. She shakes her head wisely. "I hate to say it. but you're wrong. Craig McLachlan is going to be a big hit."

  ©2015 Mark Jabara Ellison Productions
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