I’d have never in a million years guessed that I’d have context to combine the phrases “Alien adaptation” and “feel-good story,” but that’s exactly where I find myself after watching Alien On Stage. This documentary from directors Danielle Kummer and Lucy Harvey tells the story of an amateur acting troupe from a small England town who adapted Ridley Scott’s 1978 classic into a play that wound up playing London’s West End district. The path to get there is funny, touching, and tense in ways that make me love this film as much as its source material, albeit for very different reasons.
It all starts in Dorset, where employees of the Wilts and Dorset Bus Company are brainstorming for their annual pantomime production. Pantomimes are a holiday-season tradition in Great Britain and often feature comedic and musical performances that adapt folk or fairy tale elements, but when the troupe’s director Dave tasks his stepson Luc with coming up with a story for the production, Luc delves into his cinematic inspirations and decides to adapt one of his family’s favorite movies, Alien.
The film is a really intriguing example of how “traditional” folk stories will evolve as popular culture begins to slide into that role. Horror fans are familiar with stage productions of films like Evil Dead to Carrie, but it’s interesting to see one of these stories positioned in a context as being presented as part of our heritage.
But honestly, the core of this documentary’s charm lies in the people behind the production. At the center of everything is the show’s director, Dave. Introduced as being a bit surly and abrupt, I braced myself for the conflict to arise from being an utter prick. But his gruff exterior quickly gives way to the truth that he’s very fond of everyone on the team, and if there’s tension it’s because he’s trying to put on the best show he can while the cast members are in it more as a lark. Watching John (Brett) just collapse like a sack of potatoes during his iconic death scene and Jason (Dallas) portray a captain like a bored office manager are just a couple of great choices made by the cast, and it’s endearing to watch Dave continually try to herd cats as urges the cast to keep focus.
You really start to feel for Dave as the stakes for the show spike when, following an unsuccessful debut in their local theater in Dorset, a pair of fans in the crowd (who as it turns out are the documentary’s directors) convince the group that they can help get their production shown at a theater in West End. To be honest, the idea to pivot from small production to West End premier left me feeling a little uneasy, as the minimal exposition about how Kummer and Harvey got involved left me wondering how much the acting troupe were actually consulted in the decision. It’s possible that this may be an issue with editing too much out, and perhaps the group was more involved with the decision to make this leap. But if that’s the case, then I definitely could have used more about that in the documentary.
That said, as I mentioned earlier this is a feel good story, so I don’t mind spoiling that by the film’s resolution it appears all’s well that ends well. And for me, the unsung hero of the whole process is Pete, the night shift bus station supervisor in charge of the production’s props and special effects. If you’re going to put on an amateur production of Alien with a cast learning lines in their spare time, you’re likely going to live or die on the strength of your effects work. There are certain benchmarks you’ve got to hit: the facehugger scene, the chestburster’s iconic reveal, and of course the xenomorph itself. Watching Pete’s progress on creating props for these crucial scenes was such a gas, and I was literally on the edge of my seat praying for his gags to work on the night of the show.
What makes me truly happy about Alien on Stage is that it puts people in the spotlight for the simple pleasure of watching them do something they enjoy. No one in this production is gambling with millions of dollars (I’d be surprised if anything beyond securing the venue cost more than a few hundred bucks), hoping for their big break into the business, or scratching and clawing over each other for an opportunity. It’s basically the horror version of The Great British Bake-Off, and similarly it puts a huge smile on my face.