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Richard Jordan: Is there still such a thing as a cult theatre show?

Tim Curry on the set of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Photo: Camolitaa Tim Curry on the set of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Photo: Camolitaa
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On September 17, Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show – widely considered the ultimate cult musical – will have a special gala performance at London’s Playhouse Theatre, 40 years after its was released as a film. But in 2015 is there any meaning truly left to the term ‘cult show’ in the theatre?

A cult following is not the same as a developed fan base, although both often get banded together. In more recent years the term has become generalised and devalued. It should be a representation of subculture, the good and bad, and possibly work that’s controversial. However, today’s commercial producers have found it a handy marketing expression to use in trying to place work beyond criticism.

To achieve genuine cult status, the work must be embraced by a dedicated fan base who repeatedly view it and know the material inside out. In film, music and literature, it may often be a failed or offbeat independent work but its successful elevation to cult status happens because it continues to exist in a format that allows it to be rediscovered. It is why I think this is a harder term to quantify in theatre: when a show flops, it’s unlikely (except perhaps for a musical if there is a cast recording) that it will have the same ability to be rediscovered as opposed to other art forms where access to the original still exists.

The Rocky Horror Show’s theatrical success arose because the flopped movie was rediscovered and shown repeatedly at midnight matinees in New York, thereby developing its infamous heckles and audience participation that subsequently saw its return to the stage, where it could become a mainstream commercial entity.

The Rocky Horror Show’s own journey to global stage success began in 1973 with its original production at the Royal Court, then a clever, offbeat move to the Kings Road Cinema, before a final leap to London’s Comedy Theatre. Its cult status came through its themes of sexuality and tolerance, while its own arrival on stage between 1967’s Summer of Love and the arrival of new wave in the 1980s made its timing fortuitous. But the moment a show becomes a commercial large scale production is it a ‘cult show’ any longer?

I can only imagine what the experience of watching it at the Royal Court must have been like. In many ways, when visiting that theatre today, I struggle to envision it. It’s not that the Royal Court has lost its edge but, like many theatres, its second stage has become equally as embraced by mainstream audiences, possibly as a result of the term ‘Off-West End’ now usurping that of ‘fringe’ at many theatres and losing with it a feeling of danger.

However, back in May I got a taste of what that 1973 atmosphere might have felt like while watching Richard O’Brien and Richard Hartley’s sequel to The Rocky Horror Show, Shock Treatment. Adapted from that flopped movie, it received its stage premiere at London’s Kings Head Theatre. Shock Treatment’s theatre placement felt exactly right for the show. It uniquely captured a lost but polished spirit of offbeat madness with a raw edge, one that reflected the contrast of how the theatrical landscape from 1973 to today has irrevocably changed to a point where the mainstream now looks to the cult movies of John Waters to adapt into large-scale commercial Broadway musicals, thus proving that ‘cult’ provides credibility and the potential for big bucks, but which could have also sadly rendered the term itself meaningless.

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