Remember that feeling that you had when you walked out of the cinema having seen Prometheus last summer? That feeling of disbelief about just how bad it had been, the feeling of betrayal, money squandered and time wasted? Well, I had that this afternoon as I walked into the Leicester Square Theatre at 3pm to take my seat for a production that I had immediately ordered tickets for on hearing of but hadn't really thought through.
On paper, it sounded irresistible the Dorset & Wiltshire Bus Drivers Association Amateur Dramatics group had, for one night only, in Bournemouth, staged a theatrical adaptation of the film Alien. Some bright spark had seen it and, smelling a cult hit, booked it in for a one-off London performance. The description hit all the right notes - a white, elderly man interpreting Yaphet Kotto's role of Parker. A chubby middle-aged woman portraying Ian Holm's sinister android role Ash. The director's wife playing hero Ripley and the promise of some ingenious, yet inexpensive practical special effect renderings of some classic cinematic moments.
As the crowd gathered outside in the summer sun, I developed a knot in my stomach. It was an exact mix of sci-fi nerds and people with massive grins on their faces expecting a work of ludicrous ironic genius. I have to admit that I had bought tickets in feverish haste as a combination of both of these attitudes but, filing into the theatre, suddenly felt awful. The most likely reality here was that either the show would just be embarrassing, boring shit or that the audience would be mocking and cruel and the whole thing would be really uncomfortable. The audience were clearly up for a giggle and that didn't bode well. The TV screens played a title sequence which listed the cast and scored the first giggle of the night when it mentioned Ash's Stunt Double.
The play opened offputtingly well, with a single sleep chamber placed centre stage and the slow awakening of Kane - the role defined by John Hurt in the original and here interpreted by young Scott Douglas. There was silence and an air of gravitas. It was a stark, controlled opening image and the feeling in the room was that we might actually be about to see something quite special. Then the curtains juddered open and revealed the rag-tag remaining cast in dressing gowns and hybrid Dorset/American accents, already stumbling over lines and timings and the crowd loved it.
It quickly became obvious that what we were to see was the best combination of all possible outcomes. Yes, the adaptation was ill-judged and beyond the capabilities of the cast and crew but the sincerity, bonhomie and good humour with which they tackled it was infectious and warm. It was a bit like watching a primary school nativity play - you know that the same material performed by people who either fully grasped or cared about the subject matter would be unbelievably dull but the idiosyncrasies, personalities and devil-may-care attitude of the completely inappropriate cast make it adorable.
Very quickly it became obvious that the audience had no intention to mock and were supportive, enthusiastic and, increasingly participatory. Excited tension built up as familiar scenes developed and when the stage was set for the facehugger scene, a slow building 'oooooooOOOOOOOOOOOOOOHHHHHHHH' erupted into squeals of delight and deafening applause when the first xenomorph was crudely yanked out of the egg by a length of fishing line. The legendary chestburster scene was pre-empted by howls of anticipation when Douglas took to the stage with a suspiciously bulging shirt.
It took on the form of pantomime with Ash becoming the perfect villain. When Jacqui Tillotson realised this, she rightly milked every moment of her evil and allowed the audience to boo and hiss. Before each death scene, as the Alien was awkwardly and obviously shunted into place, chants of 'HE'S BEHIND YOU' rang from the crowd and everyone had a great time.
The cast were, of course, in on the joke and valiantly kept straight faces through line-fluffs, prop and wardrobe malfunctions and gloriously affectionate audience interjections (a beautifully timed 'Well Done!' brought the house down after Ripley finally dispatches the Alien to space. Jason Hill, portraying the role of ship's captain Dallas quickly tapped in to the warmth in the room and, from quite early on, played to the crowd wonderfully. He couldn't keep the grin from his face throughout and seemed to be being fed all of his lines, slightly late, through a faulty ear piece.
Everything you'd wish for, both from Alien and am-dram was present - the curtains rarely closed properly, the mics weren't ever turned off so you could always hear the cast whispering excitedly backstage, full closed-curtain set changes followed every single scene and always took longer than the scenes themselves - which added to the hysteria and anticipation perfectly. You could constantly see the crew backstage, lighting cues were missed or messed, the cast gabbled over one another, forgetting lines and apologising.
A sense of genuine giddy enthusiasm pervaded the whole production. Director Dave Mitchell clearly loved the original film, as did the audience and what came out of the production was a celebration of the familiar and the irreverent. The show was concluded with a long and joyous standing ovation. It had truly been a really special occurrence.
Could lightening strike twice? Should this get an extended run? No. Inevitably the cast would start to realise what crowds loved and fake or force the show's charming under-rehearsed rough edges. I think for everyone there, we knew we were attending a one-off moment of wonder. That said, it was filmed professionally and there's talk of a DVD, which seems kind of appropriate. But what seems almost more appropriate, indeed imperative, is that the company now follow up with a production of the 1986 sequel - Aliens.