For some reason, Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror blockbuster Alien and amateur theater seem to go well together. A high school play based on the film performed in North Bergen, New Jersey, went viral in 2019 and was even endorsed by Alien star Sigourney Weaver. However, the New Jersey play wasn’t the first movie adaptation. The documentary Alien on Stage reveals the entertaining story of a group of bus drivers from Dorset, England, whose Alien play went from a small-town flop to a sold-out hit on the West End.
These bus drivers are older than the North Bergen high schoolers, but that doesn’t mean they have any more professional theatrical experience. Their amateur company, the Paranoid Dramatics, started off doing Christmas pantomimes. In the interest of doing something different, they decided to try a straightforward stage adaptation of Alien. Turning a popular movie into a theatrical performance was a way of getting attention. The company also considered Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill for potential performances. Alien was ultimately chosen in part because it takes place mostly in one location, the Nostromo spaceship, which could be more readily adapted to a single set.
The Paranoid Dramatics’ first performance of Alien was considered a failure, selling only 20 tickets. Face-huggers and chest-bursters aren’t necessarily what the local community theater crowd looks for around the holiday season. The production did, however, get the attention of documentary filmmakers Lucy Harvey and Danielle Kummer, who loved what they saw so much that they raised funds for a one-night-only revival of the show on the West End.
Most of Harvey and Kummer’s Alien on Stage documentary follows the lead-up to this West End performance. The actors, not all of whom are fans of the movie, struggle to remember their lines in rehearsals. Their dead-serious director, Dave Mitchell, questions whether the fun that amateur theater provides is worth the frustration. Craftspeople labor on wildly inventive zero-budget special effects. It would be easy to mistake this all for a Christopher Guest mockumentary, but it’s real.
Watching this awkward yet dedicated cast and crew put this show together is amusing enough, but the real reason viewers will want to watch Alien on Stage is to see their final version of Alien. The Paranoid Dramatics’ West End performance is utterly hilarious precisely because it’s mostly played seriously. This isn’t some unintentional, “so bad, it’s good” thing — everyone involved is fully cognizant that they’ve made something ridiculous, but their earnest dedication to this ridiculous idea makes it something special. Cutting between the show itself and the people backstage pulling the strings helps viewers gain even more appreciation for what they pulled off with so few resources.
Like the stage show that it’s about, there’s some shagginess to the production of Alien on Stage. Lower quality sound is a bit distracting in some of the interviews. Because the directors themselves weren’t there from the very beginning of the play’s development, some of the background information feels rushed or lacking. These are minor issues, however, in a documentary that’s been charming film festival audiences around the world. If the right streaming service picks it up, Aliens on Stage has the chance to become a popular hit.
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