Get to the chestburster. Four words were repeating over and over in my head as I watched Alien on Stage. Frankly, the four words went on repeat the moment I heard the concept. A group of British bus drivers from Dorset put on a community production of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror film and are noticed by a couple of filmmakers who GoFundMe the group into replicating their production for an eager London audience. Their first show filled twenty seats, but in a few weeks, a sold-out city crowd will be screaming laughter or screaming for their money back. It’s all going to come down to that chestburster.
Alien is a perfect film for translation. The cast is a handful. Same for the sets. Not a lot to juggle, but enough to get right and wrong. Deliver on the face-hugger and its child, and the rest can slide a little.
Filmmakers Lucy Harvey and Danielle Kummer know what I want, and they withhold it for as long as they can. My eagerness to see Sweded creature effects is a surface-level desire. It’s a giddy, twinkly feeling that hovers above something deeper: a soulful connection to a ’79 blockbuster that psychically scarred itself into my brain upon first close encounter.
I’m not alone in this. While every bus driver might not perceive this tether, it’s certainly felt by master adapter Luc Hayward and the audience scheduled to pack the London theater. Alien is a film with grip. Once inside, it doesn’t shake free. You carry its nastiness wherever you travel. Over time, the shocks become pleasures. You’re not so much desensitized to the jolts as they baptize you. Alien changed you. Maybe you sought other movies to replicate the sensation; maybe you had your own go at creation.
Whatever the case, you hear there are some blue-collar bus drivers on their way to becoming space truckers, and you want in. It’s not about pulling out the measuring tape and checking their work. It’s about crossing your fingers and putting yourself on the stage with them. I love this thing. You love this thing. Let’s love this thing together.
The documentary’s first chunk is about establishing the performers. Jason Hill plays Captain Dallas. He’s in his final year of law exams and doesn’t have time to memorize his lines. Science Officer Ash is Jacqui Roe, an actor who finds peace, if no money, on the stage. Scott Douglas knows what a big deal it is to debut at the Leicester Square Theatre and is brilliantly double-cast as Kane and the Xenomorph terror. Meanwhile, Luc’s mom Lydia Hayward is franchise power-loader Ripley, and stepfather Dave Mitchell oversees all as the director.
Mitchell is a trip. Militarily trained, he barks orders at his cast, but the bite never really comes. He wears the production like a stone. He’s not here to mimic Ridley Scott, but he’s not here to make an ass out of the actors or himself either. He’s got pride, dammit. Also, there’s a sense that he didn’t previously love Alien-like Luc, but the script and characters have won him over completely by the end.
Alien on Stage begins with an air of The Office. Dial these characters up a notch, and you’d have Michael Scott or Dwight Schrute. Christopher Guest would do wonders with this crew. Slow zoom on a belly-crawling Mitchell, manually cranking open the cryo-stasis tubes. Luc looks at the camera, eyes widen. Fourth wall break.
I found myself waiting for disaster to strike, but the wardrobe malfunctions and set collapses never come. Are the bus drivers a well-oiled machine? No, but they don’t need to be. They’re not stabbing each other over blocking or condemning the choices made on the fly. They’re here to have a good time and return the favor.
Pete (no last name credited), the company’s late-night supervisor and special effects wizard, sums up their philosophy succinctly. He hopes they’re achieving what “Ridley Scott would have wanted to do but in a more basic format.” No delusions of grandeur, just enthusiasm and the will to get it done on their level.
By the time the cast and crew are ready/not ready to put themselves in London, Harvey and Kummer have ratcheted the tension to palpable heights. You’re invested. Alien on Stage drags you through pre-production anxiety and rewards with a masterfully covered performance. The cameras are in the crowd, the dressing rooms, the engineer’s office, behind the curtain, and tucked below the Xenomorph’s dome so you can enjoy its POV for the first time.
And the chestburster? I won’t spoil it, but it sure is something. Goosebumps unlocked. Mission victorious.