SXSW Online 2021 Review: “Alien On Stage”

Year: 2020
Runtime: 86 minutes
Directors: Lucy Harvey and Danielle Kummer
Stars: Jason Hill, Lydia Hayward, Jacqui Roe, Carolyn White, John Elliot, Mike Rustici, Scott Douglas, Penny Thorne, Dave Mitchell, Luc Hayward, Peter Lawford

By Valerie Kalfrin

Anyone who loves the theatre or has felt like a deer in spotlights will get a kick out of “Alien on Stage,” an affectionate behind-the-scenes documentary about British bus employees and their families who turned a seminal sci-fi horror film into a comical West End hit.

No one would consider director Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic a laugh riot, but the stage show is a mix of creativity and improvisation that filmmakers Lucy Harvey and Danielle Kummer crowdfunded to bring to London’s Leicester Square Theatre in 2013. “Alien on Stage,” the women’s directing debut, immerses audiences in the rehearsals before the show’s premiere in Dorset, its wild ride to London, and surprisingly enthusiastic reception. (The Leicester hosted the amateur show for charity again in 2014 and 2015.)

“Alien on Stage,” which aired at the UK’s Frightfest, SXSW Online 2021, and April’s Imagine Film Festival, combines footage and interviews with short clips from “Alien” as well as green-and-black ’70s-style graphics to comment on the action. It’s cheeky fun.

Scott Douglas as the Xenomorph backstage in “Alien on Stage” / Courtesy of Lucy Harvey and Danielle Kummer

“Alien” is favorite film of Luc Hayward, who calls it the “first real movie” that he saw with his mom, Lydia Hayward. When her husband, Dave Mitchell, and other employees of the Wilts and Dorset Bus Company need a new theatre project to raise money for charity, Luc suggests they adapt “Alien” instead of performing another pantomime such as “Robin Hood.” (He also proposes adapting “Kill Bill,” “Pulp Fiction,” or “Tombstone.”)

While Luc handles the script, Mitchell takes on directing duties. Lydia Hayward becomes Sigourney Weaver’s iconic Ellen Ripley. Luc also sees to the sound design and the costumes with his girlfriend, Amie Wells. Karl Mitchell, Dave’s son, acts as the stage manager.

Some of the cast doesn’t know the film as well as Luc’s family. “I’m not a sci-fi fan myself,” says Mike Rustici, cast as Parker.

But after some bumpy rehearsals with lots of chitchat, gaffes, and smoke breaks, the show begins to take shape. Late-night bus supervisor Peter Lawford manages the creature effects with enthusiasm. He makes use of Styrofoam, piping, canned air, a bicycle helmet, fishing line, and green paint that ruins his carpet.

The cast of “Alien on Stage” in London, including Xenomorph Scott Douglas taking a bow / Courtesy of RottenTomatoes.com

Only 20 people attend the Dorset opening. (“You have my sympathies,” pipes in a clip of Ian Holm’s Ash from the original film.) Fortunately, rapt “Alien” fans Harvey and Kummer are among them. Harvey, a stylist (“Attack the Block”), and Kummer, a videographer, find the amateurs charming and hit the internet to take the show on the road.

Through their efforts, the 430-seat Leicester Square Theatre sells out in June 2013, stunning the cast and triggering stage fright. But Penny Thorne, as the offstage voice of Mother, the ship’s computer, starts off the night with the right tone by announcing, “If you could avoid heckling the cast …” and cussing when she gets tongue-tied.

The audience claps and laughs good-naturedly, and the cast feeds off their encouragement at every flub and ad lib. By the time Scott Douglas, who “dies” as Kane and suits up as the Xenomorph, starts picking off everyone, “Alien on Stage” becomes immersive theatre, with the audience shouting, “Look out!” and “It’s behind you!”

As entertaining as the production is, “Alien on Stage” truly ends on a high note showing the aftermath: autographs and drinks at the pub, with the cast and crew marveling over the warm response. As Harvey observes, “The right piece of art being met by the right audience – you just get magic.”

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