Imagine if your amateur high school theatrical production was suddenly asked to perform on Broadway, with just a few weeks to prepare. That’s the kind of thing that typically provides fodder for anxiety dreams. But in Alien on Stage, a group of British bus drivers overcomes the odds to bring their amateur production of Ridley Scott’s classic 1979 science fiction horror film Alien to London’s West End. This winsome documentary made its international premiere at the virtual SXSW festival last week.
Per the official premise:
This is a story about a unique crew of Dorset bus drivers whose amateur dramatics group decide to ditch doing another pantomime and try something different. Having never done anything like it before, they spent a year creating a serious adaptation of the sci-fi, horror film, Alien; finding ingenious solutions to pay homemade, homage to the original film. The show is a crushing flop but fate gives them a second chance to find their audience.
Whilst still adjusting to the idea that their serious show is actually a comedy, the group find out they’re suddenly being whisked from their village hall to a London West End theatre to perform this accidental masterpiece for one night only. With wobbly sets, awkward acting and special effects requiring “more luck than judgement,” will their West End debut be alright on the night? This bus driving crew are our space heroes. Their bus station is our space station. Dorset is outer-space and where is the Alien? It’s behind you!
The amateur company in question call themselves Paranoid Dramatics, and most of the members are employed by the Wilts and Dorset Bus Company. When we first meet them, they’ve been putting on annual holiday pantomimes locally for several years as a creative outlet, with proceeds going to charity. Their production of Robin Hood in particular proved to be a smashing success with the locals.
Pantomime, for the uninitiated, is a form of family-friendly musical theater with comic gags and slapstick, with audience participation encouraged. It usually draws upon well-known fables, legends, and folk tales. But Dave Mitchell, his wife, Lydia Hayward, and son Luc, were all huge Alien fans, and one year convinced the troupe to stage an adaptation of the film. (Other candidates for adaptation included Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction, and Tombstone; Alien won out.)
Luc wrote the script, Lydia was cast in the starring role of Ripley (made iconic by Sigourney Weaver in the original film), and Dave was the director. They tapped grandfather Ray to build the sets, making it a three-generation family affair.
Jason Hill was cast as Dallas, captain of the Nostromo, with Jacqui Roe as science officer Ash (later revealed to be an android); Carolyn White as the ship’s navigator, Lambert; John Elliott as engineering technician Brett; Mike Rustici as chief engineer Parker; Penny Thorne as the voice of Mother, the ship’s computer; and Scott Douglas as both the ill-fated Kane and the Xenomorph. Various other co-workers and partners chipped in as needed for lighting, stage management, operations, sound, costumes, and props and special effects.
That latter category fell to Pete Lawford, late night supervisor at the bus company, who had to figure out how to recreate Ridley Scott’s original effects for the stage, and on a minuscule budget to boot. Pete admits on camera that his only prior experience had been building models of cars. But the Internet proved to be a treasure trove of useful information, especially a site called Instructables, which yielded specific instructions for various props, including the Xenomorph costume. (The head is adapted from a motorcycle helmet and the chin strap is used to operate the jaws.)
Lawford’s biggest challenge was the infamous chest-burster scene. He ended up using a rubber six-pack abs costume, placing the model alien in a bag just underneath it with two pints of fake blood. The chest-burster puppet was controlled (awkwardly) by wires on fishing poles, to hilarious effect, in large part because Lawford’s version looks decidedly phallic in operation.
Alas, despite all their hard work, the opening performance of Alien at the local Allendale Community Center in Wimborne, Dorset, was a disaster, with a mere 20 people in the audience. Enter filmmakers Lucy Harvey and Danielle Kummer, a pair of Londoners who were among the rare few to catch the Paranoid Dramatics stage adaptation in Wimborne. They adored the show and set up a successful crowdfunding campaign to London. They were convinced the production just needed to find the right audience. Sure, the troupe had intended to stage a serious production, but those pantomime roots just proved too strong. The secret to eventual success was accepting that and leaning into the comedy.
Inspired by the group’s “fearlessness and creativity,” Harvey and Kummer borrowed all the necessary filmmaking equipment to document the process of moving the show from its Dorset village community center to the Leicester Square Theatre in the heart of London’s West End. “Like them, we had never attempted to do something on this scale before, and like them, we just said, ‘Yes! Let’s do it!'” Harvey and Kummer said in a statement. Their inexperience shows in the final documentary, but like the stage production that inspired it, the amateurism is a big part of the film’s charm.
The sold-out, one-night performance of Alien at Leicester Square Theatre, as the film documents, was a smashing success—so much so that the troupe was invited back for an encore performance the following year, with proceeds once again going to charity. (Theater employees voted the production their all-time favorite.) You’ll find yourself clapping and cheering along with the audience in Alien in Stage, rooting for this intrepid group of ordinary people as they achieve something truly extraordinary.