Eric’s Review: Alien on Stage (2021) (SXSW Festival)

Fangoria! Woo!
★★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★

Alien on Stage is a documentary about a troupe of bus drivers turned community theater actors who got the opportunity of a lifetime to perform their production on stage in a theater in the famed West End of London. Though you sweat out whether these charming neophytes can pull it off, there is enough of an inkling that they’ve got something special that this endeavor is so crazy that it just… might… work!

Directed by Lucy Harvey and Danielle Kummer

Have you ever been given a golden opportunity that seems too good to be true? All of your biggest dreams come true, but then you realize you have to step up and deliver on literally the biggest stage imaginable? That sets the scenario for Alien on Stage. This is the parable of “Dog catches Car” by way of community theater. Congratulations, you’ve won! Now what? Such is the remarkable situation that a group of plucky bus drivers from the Wilts & Dorset Bus Company in Dorset, England found themselves in.

These bus drivers, in their spare time, perform on stage for a community theater as a charity event for their community of Wimborne that usually consisted of pantomime and general silliness. Their alter ego nom de theater is called the Paranoid Dramaties and we learn that their next stage show will take on the decidedly more ambitious task of creating the science fiction horror classic Alien, a beloved movie by several of the drivers.

We are introduced to the crew during rehearsal. The play’s director, David Mitchell, an ex-military no-nonsense man is frustrated. The actors cannot remember their lines. What’s worse, they don’t seem to show any sense of urgency. When they do deliver their lines, the dialogue is stiff and unconvincing. Mitchell frustratingly pleads with his cast to practice at home. The bus driver thespians are a bit more circumspect and believe that they are doing a fine job and that everything will be okay. After all, this is just a lark. The props are simple boxy affairs, and though the alien props are lovingly recreated, it is laughable that the spacesuits are essentially enviro-cleanroom suits, and they look far from being vacuum-worthy. Ed Wood comes to mind.

This is not the Nostromo Crew you are used to seeing. In order to understand the documentary you need to know the players of the Paranoid Dramaties troupe:

  • Ripley, still raven-haired, is not the long and lean Sigourney Weaver version, but a more Rubenesque version as played by Lydia Hayward. It’s a family affair, as Lydia and the director Dave are partners, and her son, Luc is the scriptwriter. They are all HUGE Alien fans, and Lydia is hugely committed to becoming Ripley.
  • Captain Dallas is probably the strongest physical facsimile of the original character and is played by law school attending bus driver Jason Hill. Unfortunately, Jason also struggles mightily remembering his lines without a script in front of him… and even then it’s a struggle
  • Parker has been race and age swapped with the wise-cracking Mike Rustici, who appears to be having the best time of the whole cast. He is the only member of the cast who would attempt an American accent.
  • Lambert is gender-swapped for the dowdy cockney personality of Carolyn White, who is sassy and game, but about as far from an accomplished actress that you could put on stage. She’s raw, to be kind, but having a blast doing this. Fortunately, he was excellent at delivering the key Brett phrase “Right.” The rest of the time he’s awfully hard to understand with his thick drawl and soft voice, even in the documentary interviews.
  • Ash has also been gender-swapped, with the stout Jacqui Roe, who does an admirable job playing the biggest jerk of the crew. She has an amusingly fake-looking double for the scene where Ash gets her head removed from her shoulders. For Jacqui doing acting served as a life choice validator.
  • And last, but certainly not least, Kane and the Xenomorph are portrayed by the tall, skinny, and actually talented young Scott Douglas who has acting aspirations, and it shows.

Opening night turns out to be a disaster. Only twenty people showed up. Apparently, the people of Wimbourne were bigger fans of pirate sing-alongs and pantomime than terrifying space horror. But, as dispiriting as the opener was, they soldiered on with additional showings, and eventually, enough people showed up in subsequent performances that a fan club developed. In that club were two artistic Londoners (Lucy Harvey and Danielle Kummer) who drummed enough support for a crowd-funded London performance. But not just any theater, mind you, this is the Leicester Square Theater, in London’s famous West End theater district, One Night Only! (Don’t mess it up!)

With the upcoming event being both the biggest dream and scariest nightmare that these bus drivers could imagine, they geared up to fine tune their efforts. The cast fumbles their way through inconsistent rehearsals, some clearly are getting nervous, others are aloof. Poor Dave Mitchell, the director. He’s a stress bucket. So, it’s showtime, and it’s a SELLOUT! (No pressure)

The drama within the documentary of whether the Little Engine that Maybe Can is all about defying the expectations. The hall is pristine and professional, and it is not lost on the team that this is the big leagues. The technical crew is overwhelmed by the complexity of the challenge, with lighting, mixing boards, and fly rigging that they have no experience with. And, the cast is still struggling with their lines. Good luck!

The beauty of the production and the biggest thing going for the potential success of the event was predicated on everybody in the audience knowing the punch lines. The audience was revved up to watch the attempt, but in order to pull this off, the cast and crew needed to deliver on the famous specific moments of the movie. They hit all the essential marks, including:

  • The opening scene of waking up out of cryosleep.
  • Landing the Nostromo on LV 426 (Star Trek jostling in full effect.)
  • Kane getting jumped by the face-hugger.
  • Parker knocking Ash’s head off (brilliant and cheesy execution)
  • Alien Killing Dallas (REALLY well done)
  • Alien Killing Brett (Alien sneaking in from the audience, a nice touch)
  • Alien Killing Lambert and Parker (with some new improv dialogue)
  • One complaint. No Jonesy?

The production was clearly a community theater level budget, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t some real stage brilliance to the production, as limited as the budget was. The use of the standing medical bed and the sleep pod was a brilliant use of minimal stagecraft to display the actors who would otherwise be laying prone and largely out of view by the audience. The use of fishing poles as rigging for the creature effects was executed extremely well, much to the delight of the audience. Exit, chestburster, stage left! And, the scene with Dallas crawling through the ductwork but using simple steel frames with pull-away curtains to reveal new sections was really well thought out.

Who knew bus drivers could be so creative? Specific credit is to be given to the prop master, Pete Lawford, a night shift bus station supervisor by trade, who researched online how to create foam latex replicas of the creatures and came up with the rigging himself. The Xenomorph was stage-ready and those essential pieces helped accept the Spaceman Spiff quality sets.

Much to Mitchell’s surprise and relief, the troupe got rapturous reviews. It was voted on by the staff of the Leicester Square Theater as their favorite performance in the history of their theater. As a result, they now have a yearly performance at the theater. Everyone, it appears, loves an underdog.

It’s all about context. The charm of the often brilliant, and occasionally clumsy execution is that everyone in the audience is in on the joke. The hard-driving Mitchell had set out to deliver a fairly serious adaptation of the famous film, and never quite grasps that the stage production with its cardboard Nostromo and awkward performances is really a loving and funny take. The actors lap up the adulation, and the packed audience eats up the charm.

As for documentary directors Harvey and Kummar, they get full credit for identifying a prime subject for a documentary. However, without the pressure of the Leicester Square show, the stakes become much, much less. I would be curious to know the back story of how the crowdfunding process worked to swing the deal with the theater. This has a bit of a real-life The Full Monty feel to it, and it would not surprise me in the least if the directors used that source as inspiration for identifying how successful Alien on Stage would be.

I will admit, when I first heard of this film, my mind immediately went to a similar production of a New Jersey High School production of Alien back in 2018. I thought that was going to be what the movie was about. That production by a mostly Latinx group of students actually managed to have film-ready props and productions, and they played it straight, and not for laughs, eventually garnering the attention of Sigourney Weaver, herself. I would have loved to have seen a documentary of that stage show, and compare and contrast, but I’m not sure of the need for a second similar story.

I can speak from experience, having gone to Evil Dead, the Musical in Las Vegas, thinking it to be a fun and goofy romp (it’s showcase song is “What the Fuck was That?”) but that PROFESSIONAL show tried too hard. The humor in that Vegas show felt forced, and in the end, it was a bit of a slog to get through.. The truth was I wasn’t rooting for the actors in the way that you would for these bus drivers. That these lorrie crews had the audacity to go to the West End, the heart of England’s theater scene and deliver a fan favorite show is a testament to heart.

Alien on Stage is not rated, but it certainly would be rated PG, with nothing particularly objectionable. Having just wrapped up at SXSW, it is certain to get picked up by a distributor, but it does not yet have a theatrical or streaming release date yet. The Scariest Things offers up a strong viewing recommendation for those looking for an inspirational underdog story that touches on the horror genre.

Review by Eric Li

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