When Oliver Thornton finished a three-year run in the West End as part of Priscilla Queen Of The Desert he was ready to start on something serious and show his true acting range.
Then the chance to play the Rocky Horror Show’s Frank N Furter came calling.
“When you get offered to play Frank you say yes,” he says on his first visit to Theatre Royal Brighton. “It’s such an amazing role.
“He’s a little bit of everyone which is what is so attractive. He’s sexually ambiguous – he gives a little bit, but also holds back a lot. He’s a showman, but he’s also sensitive, and can be dangerous.
“There are few characters that have that scope.”
On the day he meets The Guide, Thornton seems a world away from the slap-faced, corseted and stillettoed Frank N Furter – instead dressed smartly but casually in a dapper vintage waistcoat reminiscent of Matt Smith’s take on Doctor Who.
But he admits after working on Priscilla, where he played the part of Adam, donning the Doc’s duds was “a home from home”.
“When I first started Priscilla I was terrified,” he says. “I used to go to costume fittings where they would hold up a pair of pants the size of a postage stamp and I would think: ‘No way!’ “After three years on the show it set me up for Rocky.
“I’m really fascinated by the gothic element of the show – there is a real interest in that gothic vampire world with True Blood and Twilight. I would like to bring a bit of that out into my Frank. I’d like him to have a dark, romantic and gothic edge.”
There are other comparisons between Priscilla and Rocky. In both Thornton gets to make something of an entrance.
“I came into Priscilla about 20 minutes in,” he says. “I would come down from the ceiling dressed as an angel with full angel wings.
“Frank does a similar entrance ten to 15 minutes into the film, coming down in a lift singing Sweet Transvestite. It’s lovely for an actor to get to make a real entrance.”
Both roles were quite a remove from Thornton’s own experiences growing up.
“I’m quite a reserved kind of chap,” he admits. “I grew up in a small town in Wales, I had a very conservative upbringing. There’s always a part of me that thinks: ‘I’ve got to stand up in front of these people’.
“If I had to perform in the street with knickers and suspenders on I couldn’t – but then you think it’s not you doing it, it’s the character, and that’s what makes it bearable!”
When he spoke to The Guide, Thornton was looking forward to a visit by Rocky Horror Show’s writer Richard O’Brien to the ongoing rehearsals.
O’Brien penned the cult favourite to fill the chilly winter evenings while looking for work. It tells the story of an all-American couple who become stranded outside Frank N Furter’s gothic mansion after their car breaks down. When they enter the house to ask for help they find themselves entangled in a world far beyond their buttoned-down imaginations.
“When he wrote Rocky, Richard was speaking from the heart for a society that didn’t have a voice,” says Thornton.
“He said we can be different and that’s okay. It’s what he wanted to say in his own life, and he gave that voice to millions of other people – which is still being heard.
“In rehearsals he will be seeing us at our most vulnerable. He’s the man who knows everything about the show – every note of the score, every character. We are so fortunate to have him in the room.
“I’m interested in speaking to him about the production at the Royal Court – it was only going to run for a week – and the expansion of the show from two or three songs in his bedroom to one of the largest musicals globally.”
This production – which also features former X Factor finalist Rhydian as Rocky, Jesus Christ Superstar’s Ben Forster as Brad, Emmerdale’s Roxanne Pallett as Janet and Darling Buds Of May actor Philip Franks as the Narrator – will mark the 40th anniversary of the original production.
Director Christopher Luscombe has decided to redirect this run from scratch. Assisting him is original costume designer Sue Blane, who worked both on the Royal Court show and the movie.
“Chris has made it very clear that he’s directing this like a straight play,” says Thornton. “At the moment we don’t have to worry about what goes on outside in the audience’s world.”
The Rocky Horror Show has become famous for its audience responses, arising from the classic midnight screenings of the movie that were held in New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“How do you prepare for it?” asks Thornton. “There’s no point saying: ‘The audience might say this, so you should say this back’. I don’t think the audience would like it if we gave generic responses.
“When all hell breaks loose you learn how to deal with it in the moment. It’s all about spectacle.
“I’m really looking forward to people surprising us – where you have a split second where the character breaks and you find the joke funny. It’s quite liberating to be standing on stage and have the audience supply the joke.”
He regards the Rocky Horror Show as a party show – very much like Priscilla – making it a perfect choice for Christmas.
“With Priscilla the audience was part of the show,” he says. “It was never them and us, they were part of our gang, or we were part of theirs.
“The pantomime is a wonderful festive tradition, but I think there is also a party tradition at Christmas. It’s about saying to your friends: ‘It’s Christmas, let’s book ten tickets and all us girls dress up and go to the theatre’ or everyone from the office or rugby club.
“It’s what Christmas is all about – coming together and having an amazing night out.”
Theatre Royal Brighton, New Road, Thursday, December 20, to Saturday, January 5. Starts Wednesday and Thursday 7.45pm, Friday to Sunday 5.40pm, Friday and Saturday 8.30pm, New Year’s Eve 9.30pm, tickets from £15. To book, call 0844 8717650