Luke Hinton takes a look at ‘Alien on Stage’, as part of FilmHounds’ ongoing Fantasia Festival coverage.
Any attempt to adapt a medium-defining film like Ridley Scott’s Alien is a gargantuan task. Countless sequels, spin-offs and prequels have tried to capture the claustrophobic magic and practical charm of the original, but none have managed to reach the same standard. It wasn’t until a group of bus drivers from Dorset, Southwest England, came along with their own stage version of Alien. No, it doesn’t have the atmosphere, the sleekness, or the timelessness of the 1979 original — but this documentary, charting its development and performance, captures a truly wonderful version of the film, and the very best intentions of its cast.
What makes Aliens on Stage so special is just how real the production feels. These aren’t stage actors or directors putting the show together: they’re fans, letting their passion seep through. The early stages of the documentary track the early rehearsals before the initial performances in Dorset, and there’s forgotten lines, missed cues, and plenty of frustration. But that’s what makes the stage play just so charming. You can see the stress emanating off the director as performance day nears, but it never comes from a place of scorn — rather, a desire to give the material the tribute it deserves.
Following a successful run of Dorset shows, they get an opportunity like no other — to take their Alien play to Leicester Square, on London’s West End – the Hollywood of British theatre. Prior to these performances, directors Danielle Kummer and Lucy Harvey manage to covey the pre-show nerves in the same way Scott builds tension in the Nostromo; with lingering, slow shots of the theatre, and muddy lighting. You can tell that everything behind this documentary comes from a deep reverence of the original, and a desire to do it justice in a totally new format — even the title sequence, that mirrors Alien wonderfully.
And on that front, it’s a chest-ripping success. The show is so charming and ceaselessly funny, and despite the show’s director aiming to move away from the classic British pantomime, it inadvertently retains all the slapstick allure of those annual Christmas performances. Everything is just spectacular, especially the extraordinary practical effects. You’ll gawk at how just one man managed to build a replica Xenomorph suit, a fully functioning facehugger, and the tubing of the Nostromo.
But more than just a tribute to a beloved film — and one of this reviewer’s all-time favourites — Alien on Stage is proof of the ambition and passion that courses through ordinary people. Nobody would expect a rag-tag group of bus drivers to dedicate this much effort into a small-time production of an old horror film. But seeing it come off at the end, and the audience’s reaction to the production, is a surprisingly moving experience. It’s hard not to get emotional seeing the crowd hooting and hollering as they slip over lines, perform the key set pieces in the film, or lead a standing ovation once the curtain closes.
That’s what makes Alien on Stage a unique documentary, and a great concept in general. It’s a film happy to show warts and all, even the dodgy on-stage American accents. While it’s a shame we never get to see the reaction of Ridley Scott, Sigourney Weaver and the original cast and crew; you can guarantee they’d be proud of how this group of regular people injected their work with a new veneer of nuance. It’s a genuinely beautiful documentary, and it’ll make you appreciate 1979’s Alien in a totally new way.
Alien on Stage screened at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival, as part of the Documentaries From the Edge section. The film is currently seeking international distribution