The West

Christie Whelan Browne, Tim Maddren and Craig McLachlan. Picture: Supplied

It is an undeniably disconcerting experience interviewing Craig McLachlan in full Frank-N-Furter mode. We're sitting inside the plush Lyric Theatre at Brisbane's Queensland Performing Arts Centre, where Richard O'Brien's beloved musical The Rocky Horror Show will, later that evening, have its Australian premiere. McLachlan is looking unnervingly fetching in suspender stockings, red lipstick and a pair of black leather briefs.

So much so, in fact, that before our interview even gets under way, I drop my Dictaphone under my seat and spend what seems like an eternity searching for it while McLachlan taps his spangled glitter heels in mock impatience.

"Do you want me to get changed?", he purrs seductively. I blush. "No, no, it's okay," I stammer. He stands up and wiggles his leather-clad behind. "Are you SURE you don't want me to get changed?"

Here, in a brief but hilarious moment, McLachlan has enacted something that speaks to the ongoing success and popularity of Rocky Horror, which continues to inspire passion and devotion in its legion of Time Warp-ing fans.

Why do we find Frank-N-Furter - a rather nasty, occasionally pathetic, somewhat destructive and not-so-sweet transvestite from another planet - so erotic, so sexually alluring? For there is no doubting that Frank-N-Furter is a sex symbol of sorts, a hedonistic advocate for giving yourself over to "absolute pleasure".

"We did a preview here to a small audience and they absolutely went off; for me, it was a fantastic reminder - a profound reminder, actually - of how people connect with this show," McLachlan says.

"How people respond to the androgyny of the characters. The first time you ever see Frank-N-Furter, whether it's a stage production or the film, you can't help but be confused by him. Is he a man, a woman? Why do we find him so attractive?"

At the media call, my primary fear, as an unabashed Tim Curry fan, is dispelled: could McLachlan, whom I know primarily as a former soap star and one-hit pop wonder (anyone remember Mona?) come anywhere close to matching the darkly glamorous Curry, who played the role both in Richard O'Brien's original 1973 stage play and Jim Sharman's cult 1975 film?

McLachlan is a slightly different incarnation of Frank-N-Furter. He's older than Curry's gothic, pansexual seducer, beefier, more obviously macho. But he manages to capture the camp wit, humour, and erotic pull of the character, and he has a fine singing voice that positively booms its way off the stage.

If anything, this production is even truer to the original stage script than the film, the soundtrack of which is now regarded as a cult classic.

"Things always get added to a role over the years; it's like Chinese whispers," McLachlan says. "In the end you're left with a script that has so much in it that wasn't part of the original, so we've stripped it all back to what Richard O'Brien originally wrote."

This is, of course, not McLachlan's first time playing Frank-N-Furter. He first strapped on the stilettos in the 1990s in a deliberate ploy to get away from the mainstream soapie/pop star persona that had defined him throughout the 1980s.

"It actually doesn't seem that long ago," he says. "But I was really just a kid. I was coming out of that golden Kylie/Jason period, the rock band I'd been playing in for years had been turned into a family- friendly pop band and everything was very 'nice' in terms of my career.

"Rocky Horror came along and I got the call asking if I actually wanted to play Rocky. I was cocky enough to say 'Look, forget about Rocky, it's Frank-N-Furter or nothing'. I wanted to be seen as a character so far removed from Henry (in Neighbours) at that point. It felt like 'OK, it's time to shock the people'."

McLachlan adds that as a comparative youngster, with not a lot of life experience behind him, there were layers of Frank-N-Furter's character - and certain themes within the show - that he didn't fully understand.

"The great joy for me now, other than being reminded of how audiences react to it, is just discovering all this other stuff in the story that I was unaware of as a kid," he says.

O'Brien, who flew into Brisbane for the premiere, says the show is in safe hands with director Christopher Luscombe, who created the new production for a UK tour to mark the 40th anniversary last year.

"This production is based around the formula that he decided on for the tour in Great Britain, so the set is basically the same and he's working with very familiar kinds of principles," O'Brien says.

O'Brien, who played Riff Raff in the film version opposite Curry and Susan Sarandon, continues to be amazed at the wide variety of theatre-goers the show attracts.

With an alien transvestite as a protagonist, and plenty of flesh on display, The Rocky Horror Show has become synonymous with sexual liberation.

"I was in Germany after the wall came down (1990) and I went through to East Germany and I saw three productions in three nights in three different parts of Germany," O'Brien says.

"I was in the front row (of one show) with a producer friend of mine and there were these two girls, aged 12 I suppose, who were sitting at the end and these girls were singing along with all the songs in English. I just don't understand how that happens; why two teenage girls would know all these songs.

"It just seems to keep interesting the young people and grabbing their attention."

There are a number of WAAPA graduates in this production, from Tim Maddren, who plays Brad, and Vincent Hooper and Meghan O'Shea (both in the black-clad Phantoms who form the show's backing chorus) to Nicholas Christo, who plays two characters, the Elvis-like character of Eddie and the wheelchair-bound scientist Dr Scott.

For Christo, it's a dream come true to be involved in a production of one of his all-time favourite stage shows.

"Every time I hear a whisper that Rocky Horror is auditioning, I have to go," he laughs. "My friends and I used to dance around the house singing the songs, so every day I come in to work I think 'Pay attention, this is what you have been working towards'."

The West Australian

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