Alien On Stage – SXSW 2021 Review

by Jordan King

Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece Alien is arguably the greatest sci-fi horror film of all time. Paranoid Dramatics are an am-dram theatre outfit consisting of a group of Dorset bus drivers. Alien on Stage, the play and now subject of Danielle Kummer and Lucy Harvey’s documentary film,is what happened when these two worlds collided. And honestly, the result both then and now is something genuinely awe-inspiring. Alien on Stage is a rousing celebration of the community fostered by amateur theatre, the creativity inspired by great cinema, and the ways in which passion and the ability to piss yourself laughing at your own madness may yet be the key to true happiness. As bus depot comms manager Nikki (who hasn’t even watched the show – pfft!) rightly observes, there’s got to be more to life than bills, brews, and driving buses – ‘You’ve got to try something different’. And this is most assuredly something different.

Picture the scene. We’re in Wimborne, Dorset, sometime in late 2011, early 2012. Following a slew of standard fare community pantos for charity, newly inaugurated Paranoid Dramatics are looking for something different to put on next. Having considered adapting Tombstone and Pulp Fiction, the group land on Alien. Its sets are few and look pretty easy to replicate, especially in the capable hands of maverick prop and special effects man Pete (the doc’s low-key hero), and the film is a firm favourite of ex-squaddie director Dave Mitchell and his wife, ready-made Ripley Lydia. Also, Dave and Lydia’s son Luc – who watched Scott’s xenomorph chiller for the first time at the tender age of nine – is an aspiring screenwriter. It’s like it was meant to be, and so what could possibly go wrong?

Well, apparently quite a lot. Kummer and Harvey come on the scene following Alien on Stage’s shambolic run of shows in February 2012, attended by a crowd of 20 on a good night. Whether it’s the line-losing ensemble, the unintentionally comic script, or the DIY special effects, God only knows, but the Allendale Centre appears to have played host to an unmitigated disaster. That’s not what our directors saw when they journeyed from London to Dorset on a whim to check the show out however. Delighted by a show they described as ‘mad as a box of day-glo frogs’, Kummer and Harvey saw in this ragtag bunch of thesps a passion and a spark that would lead Paranoid Dramatics to a second stab at glory.

Following a successful campaign to fund a one night only show at London’s Leicester Square Theatre, Kummer and Harvey filmed the cast and crew’s frantic attempts to sharpen up their sci-fi shenanigans as the clock ticked down to curtains up. Playing out like a real-life Waiting For Guffman, shot and observed in the vein of Ricky Gervais’ The Office, the document produced for our viewing pleasure is a veritable treasure trove of rowdy rehearsals, frayed nerves, moments of inspiration (just look at that majestic xenomorph), and a perpetual guessing game of ‘Will Pete ever test his props?’

The key to it all though is the memorable band of bus drivers who form the heart and soul of the film. Self-deprecating and deadly serious in equal measure, the group are a joy to follow and a loving reminder of the peaks and pitfalls of am-dram life. Whether we’re watching Dave slowly lose the will to live as his cast stubbornly refuse to go off-script, committed actress Jacqui (a brilliantly deadpan gender-bent Ash) recalling how the theatre empowered her in her teenage years, charmingly curmudgeonly duo Mike and John dishing the dirt behind the scenes of this behind-the-scenes film, or any of the wealth of other characters – and they most assuredly all are true characters – our time spent amongst them is never wasted, even if they are perilously wasting time that really should be spent rehearsing!

Through challenges, tensions, highs, and lows however, as is the way of community theatre, our intrepid troupe of Nostromo nerds find a way to make it alright on the night. This opens the doc up to a second half almost entirely devoted to what was evidently a truly magical experience both on the stage and in the crowd in Leicester Square. Pete’s handiwork pays off to rapturous applause, the unlikely stars play up to the crowd, and they ad-lib like the legends they are (Penny saying ‘crap’ instead of ‘creation’ in the role of Mother was surely intentional?), righteously milking their moment in the spotlight for all its worth. As the chestburster scene, Ash’s beheading, and Ripley and the Xenomorph’s showdown all whizz by in a blur of delightfully Dorsettian line delivery and film-accurate bleeps, bloops, and musical cues, I defy any viewer not to feel their heart swell and their soul long to be back at the theatre again.

Alien on Stage is a beautiful underdog story made by fans of the show, which in turn was made by fans of the film, and which will make fans of Paranoid Dramatics of us all. As reluctant director and have-a-go hero Dave Mitchell drinks in – both literally and figuratively – his cast and crew’s success at the aftershow party, he muses ‘Leicester every year?’

What a dream that would be. This is the most feel-good documentary you’ll see all year, guaranteed.

Alien on Stage played as part of the SXSW Film Festival!

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