FANTASIA REVIEW: Alien on Stage (2020)

Alienonstage_posterA group of bus drivers from Dorset traditionally produce an annual amateur pantomime to raise money for charity. One year they elect to stage a theatrical adaptation of Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction horror classic Alien instead.

That’s it: that’s the pitch. If the very idea of Alien on Stage, a documentary tracking the world’s least likely theatrical adaptation, is not already grabbing your attention then there’s nothing else I can do. This is marvellous, funny, utterly joyful stuff.

Bus driver Dave Mitchell is the director behind this ambitious staging, through a rehearsal process that will be familiar to anyone that has ever seen or participated in community theatre. It is important to keep in mind the non-professional nature of the show: Mitchell’s own wife Lydia Howard plays protagonist Ellen Ripley, and the other roles feel pretty much passed out at random (Ash is played by a woman, Jacqui Rowe, while Parker is now white). The sets are cobbled together beautifully in cardboard and polystyrene.

When performance night arrives, hardly anyone comes to see it. That would have marked the end of Alien in its amateur form, had documentary filmmakers Lucy Harvey and Danielle Kummer not been among that tiny audience and been inspired to not only bring Alien to London’s West End but record a documentary of the process as well.

This is charming, heartwarming drama. British cinema is littered with films about small-town locals putting together something magical against the odds, but the difference in Alien on Stage is that it actually happened. This is the genuine article, and that makes the experience all the more endearing and special.

Harvey and Kummer keep their documentary straight-forward and uncomplicated, with just a few tongue-in-cheek touches around the captions and credits. It is a smart move: the focus of the film is on the admirable and inventive cast and crew, and how they manage to actually present Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece to a live audience.

The pinnacle of the film is, of course, its marvellous third act in which we finally get the see the fruits of all this labour. Mitchell’s Alien is a tremendous thing, veering from the awkwardly amusing to the ridiculous – and occasionally to genuine jaw-dropping admiration. A sold-out audience consists almost entirely of die-hard Alien fans. There is a lot of laughter, but critically it is of the appreciative sort, and the pleasure that these spectators express clearly rubs off on the performers. The precise detail of the show – the highlights and the best achievements – I will leave for you to discover by yourself.

There is an argument to be made that perhaps Alien on Stage focuses too much on the show itself, and not enough on the real people that brought the production to life. The question of why a group of bus drivers would abandon their annual pantomime for science fiction horror is never really answered. As a document of a one-in-a-kind phenomenon, however, Alien on Stage makes for a warm, winning treat.

Alien on Stage is streaming on demand as part of the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival. For Canadian readers, the festival takes place in person and online from 5-25 August. For more information, click here.

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