BILLY SUTER chats to Welsh-born KRISTIAN LAVERCOMBE, who holds the world record for playing Riff Raff in The Rocky Horror Show. He also fills this role in the South African touring production of the musical which runs at Cape Town’s Artscape Theatre from December 6 to January 12. Featuring Craig Urbani as Frank N Furter and Kate Normington as Narrator, the hit show also runs at Johannesburg’s Teatro theatre, at Montecasino, from January 17 to March 1.
FOR A CHANCE TO WIN ONE OF THREE SETS OF DOUBLE TICKETS TO THE 8PM, FRIDAY, DECEMBER 6 PERFORMANCE OF THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW AT CAPE TOWN’S ARTSPACE THEATRE, SEE END OF THIS STORY
How excited are you about playing Riff-Raff in The Rocky Horror Show in South Africa – and how is this production likely to differ from previous stagings of the classic musical?
I’m incredibly excited to be back in South Africa and, of course, playing Riff Raff here. This production is the same production as the incredibly successful London West End version that has been seen around the world. However, this version has a brilliant South African cast.
I’ve performed this show with eight different casts so far and no two versions are exactly the same. They are directed to the strengths of the performers and each cast discovers new things in the rehearsals… and that is an exciting process to be a part of.
I understand that, although Welsh-born, raised in New Zealand, and now living in London, you have spent time in South Africa before?
I was born in Wales and went to primary school there before my family emigrated to New Zealand, where I went to high school. During my primary school years my family also lived in South Africa for a year or two. We were initially in Port Elizabeth before moving to Welkom, where my father worked in one of the gold mines.
My father is rugby mad and it’s no coincidence that all of the countries we have lived in loved rugby too. I guess he figured there’d always be a shared interest.
On July 19 this year you broke the record for playing Riff-Raff in The Rocky Horror Show, marking 1477 performances. What comments on this achievement?
I have two records in regard to Rocky Horror. The most performances as Riff Raff and also the most performances of any other person in The Rocky Horror Show. It was never my intention to break any records, I was just doing something I loved.
Where were you performing when you broke the record and how was this landmark celebrated?
I was performing in Cambridge in the UK. It was just another day really, but the producers of Rocky Horror gifted me a large, framed picture celebrating my time on the show, which I will treasure. As I’m still performing in the show I break my own record every day – which is pretty cool, if you think about it.
At time of writing how many performances had you chalked up as Riff-Raff? Also, who held the record previously?
I’ve currently performed in Rocky Horror over 1 700 times and 1 584 of those performances have been as Riff Raff. The previous Riff Raff record was held by an actor called Perry Bedden, who performed in the show during the 1970s and 1980s. He’s pretty much a Rocky original and even played one of the phantoms in the movie.
There’s also Daniel Abineri – another Rocky Horror legend from the early days – who played Frank N Furter an impressive 1555 times.
Richard O’Brien, the creator of The Rocky Horror Show and also its original Riff-Raff (who also played him in the 1975 film version), has labelled you “a fantastically talented Riff-Raff”. You had opportunities , I hear, of working with O’Brien. Tell us more.
I’ve worked with Richard O’Brien on several occasions. I did the New Zealand tour of Rocky Horror with him about 10 years ago. I’ve also done a couple of seasons with him as part of the Australian tours of the show and the West End live version of Rocky Horror that was broadcast to cinemas.
Richard has been a hero of mine since I was a teenager. The first time I met him was in a rehearsal, and it is safe to say I was equal parts excited and terrified walking into that room. I was lucky enough to sing Time Warp with him every night in that production, which felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I somehow got to relive over a hundred times.
How does your Riff-Raff compare and/or differ, to O’Brien’s iconic performance in this role in the classic film?
I think there is always going to be an element of Richard O’Brien’s Riff Raff in any person who takes on that role. His performance of Riff Raff is iconic. But no two actors are ever going to produce the same performance.
There is definitely a hint of Richard O’Brien in my performance, but I have taken most of my inspiration from the performances of the old horror and sci-fi actors that inspired Richard to create Rocky Horror.
Where and when did you first play Riff-Raff on stage – and how does your depiction of the character now compare to how you first played him? Also, has your look and/or make-up changed in any way over the years?
I first played Riff Raff as part of an Australian cast of Rocky Horror that was doing an overseas tour. The show opened in Seoul in South Korea.
It’s hard to remember exactly how I played him in those days as the character changes and develops in ways that are unnoticeable to me. I suppose it’s a little like ageing, you don’t really notice, as it’s a gradual thing.
However, the make-up has most definitely changed. I’ve gradually progressed Riff Raff’s makeup so that he looks how I see him. I think in the early days, he looked too young and fresh. He’s definitely a bit more weathered these days.
What has been your most memorable performance as Riff-Riff – and why, where and when was this?
I think the most memorable was the performance that was beamed out live from the West End to cinemas across the UK and Europe. It was the most watched piece of cinema in the UK on that day and I was lucky enough to share the stage with icons like Stephen Fry, Emma Bunton, Adrian Edmondson, Anthony Head and, of course, Richard O’Brien.
It was also replayed for a time on BBC America and it has been viewed millions of times online. Again, it felt like another once-in-a-lifetime situation.
Rehearsals have started in Cape Town for the South African tour. How easy or difficult, and how rewarding or not, is it to keep re-rehearsing the same show with a new cast?
It’s actually a brilliant opportunity to re-rehearse a show you already know. There are always little bits that niggle you, and it gives you the opportunity to re-think and correct those bits.
You always discover new things when you work with a new cast, too. It really is a testament to how good Rocky Horror is when you can still find new things 1 700 shows in.
What it means for South African audiences is that they are getting a very fresh version of this production. I’ve been incredibly impressed with the brilliant and diverse talent that you have here in South Africa – you are in for a treat.
What other roles have you played in The Rocky Horror Show over the years and which has been your favourite?
I’ve played Frank N Furter, Brad Majors, the Narrator and, of course, Riff Raff. Riff Raff is like family to me. As strange as it sounds – in many ways – after so many performances that character has become a part of me.
Brad was fun too! However, I loved the freedom of playing Frank N Furter. It’s rare for any actor to play such an iconic role.
Earlier this year I also got to play the Narrator for a short stretch and I have to say I absolutely adored it. I would love to think that I’ll get to play that role again one day.
I understand you played sweet transvestite Frank N Furter in New Zealand not too long after you trained at the National Academy of Singing and Dramatic Art there. Where and when did this happen?
The show was part of the line-up for the Nelson Arts Festival which was in my hometown. I’d been sharing my time between Christchurch and Auckland performing in plays.
I was only about 21 at the time – probably a bit young to play Frank N Furter, but they flew me down to audition for it and gave me the role.
I really had the most amazing time doing it. I fell in love with the show and I feel like that first production played a very important part in my Rocky Horror adventure.
What sort of fan base do you have as a result of your Rocky Horror success? I understand you post a lot on Instagram/YouTube?
I suspect the majority of the people who follow me on social media have found me through Rocky Horror. I think fans of the show recognise that I’m also a Rocky Horror fan and they appreciate it. Most of the things I post about are in some way related to the show, as it’s currently a huge part of my life.
What have been some amusing, embarrassing or otherwise memorable moments with this role over the years? Any odd heckling, wardrobe malfunctions, mishaps on stage etc?
Live theatre is often eventful. Even more so with Rocky Horror. From my experience, anything can happen. I once had the most horrific nosebleed while singing Time Warp.
It soon became apparent that it’s impossible to sniff when you are singing, so there was blood all over me. The audience must have thought that it was going to be an incredibly gory production.
I’ve also had people get carried away with it all and jump up on stage during the show. The last guy who did that was so enthusiastic when we came off stage we were all commenting how impressed we were with his dancing.
There was another occasion when a woman dressed as Riff Raff’s sister, Magenta, jumped up on stage in a blackout and somehow found her way backstage to my dressing room without being noticed. I called for security and she was last seen being carried away, while screaming, “I’m your sister!”.
You have had lead roles in some 30 or more professional stage productions, including playing Jesus in a production of JC Superstar for the Auckland Theatre Company in 2014. Give examples of the diversity of roles you have played and what has been a particular favourite.
To be honest, whatever role I happen to be playing at the time is my favourite. I think it would feel like a betrayal to say anything else. As unusual as it sounds, the characters you play are like old friends. I love the process of getting to know the character along the way. One of the reasons I love being an actor is it gives me the opportunity to see the world through different eyes.
How long will The Rocky Horror Show keep you busy in South Africa – and where to for you thereafter?
The Rocky Horror Show is in Cape Town until January 12 and then in Johannesburg until March 1. After that I will be heading back to New Zealand to visit my family and friends. It’ll be about 18 months since I’ve been back, so I’m really looking forward to it.
How big a Rocky Horror fan were you before appearing in the show and how and where you first introduced to the musical?
My very first taste of Rocky Horror was as a 15-year-old in New Zealand, watching the movie with my friends on a Saturday night.
However, when I was 18 and studying at acting school, I went to see a midnight showing of the movie in a dilapidated, old cinema that was about to be demolished. Everyone was dressed up in fishnets and feather boas and calling back at the screen. It was a total experience and I suspect that event was the start of my ongoing fascination with the show.
On a side note, I managed to buy four of the old theatre seats from that cinema before it was demolished – they are probably one of my most prized possessions. Then the following year – on my 19th birthday – I went to see a live theatre production of Rocky Horror.
In that production, Riff Raff was brilliantly played by an actor called Mark Hadlow, who played Dori in the Hobbit films, and coincidentally is the person who gave me my first acting job.
What are dream roles for you?
I’ve been shouting from the rooftops that I’d like to play Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I got cast in it earlier this year in New Zealand, but I had to pull out because of a scheduling crossover with Rocky Horror. It would have been nice to have done it, but it wasn’t meant to be at that time.
Away from the stage how do you relax and unwind? Any hobbies etc?
I’ve basically been on tour for several years and it is challenging to have any sort of hobbies when you live out of a suitcase. However, in recent times I took some time out and studied at the London Institute of Photography.
I’d been wanting to do that for a long time. I tend to concentrate on creative portraiture and photographing the beauty of old theatres. I even released some calendars and prints for a short time on my website, that were very popular.
What would you say to South Africans to encourage them to book for this new The Rocky Horror Show?
The Rocky Horror Show is a guaranteed good time. There is good reason why the musical is still thriving 46 years on. The show is so much fun to watch and also be a part of.
I’m 1 700 performances in and I’m still not remotely tired of doing it. In fact, I’m passionate about the show. That really is a testament to how much of a good time Rocky Horror really is.
It continues to be fresh, subversive and the best night out! So, grab your feather boas and head on down.
Any other news or comments?
If anyone is interested in following my projects and photography, or would like to get more of behind-scene glimpses of Rocky Horror, then head on over to my Instagram or website: www.kristianlavercombe.com
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