Joanne Clifton heads to Eastbourne with the Rocky Horror Show

Joanne Clifton stars as Janet in the Rocky Horror Show. Picture by Shaun Webb
Joanne Clifton stars as Janet in the Rocky Horror Show. Picture by Shaun Webb

Strictly Come Dancing and musical theatre star Joanne Clifton is having a fabulous time in the Rocky Horror Show, which heads to Eastbourne next week.

Currently on its hugely popular worldwide tour, Richard O’Brien’s rock ’n’ roll extravaganza stops off at the Congress Theatre from Monday, May 27, to Saturday, June 1.

It tells the story of college sweethearts Brad and Janet, who meet the mysterious Dr Frank ’n’ Furter and his bizarre friends when their car breaks down outside a spooky mansion. What follows is a scary, hilarious and downright raunchy adventure, packed full of massive musical numbers like ‘Sweet Transvestite’, ‘Hot Patootie’, ‘Damn it Janet’ and ‘Time Warp’.

Joanne loves these tunes, of course, but she’s particularly fascinated by something else that this show is known for.

“It’s the audience participation that’s the best,” she states. “This is my sixth musical now and I’d never done a show with the audience participation before.”

“When you get in front of an audience and you have a thousand people just shouting stuff at you it’s absolutely amazing.”

Joanne goes on to explain that the audience, often wearing amusing and creative fancy dress, will not just sing along to every song, they’ll actually yell out their own lines. For the uninitiated this may sound uncouth, but it’s a Rocky Horror tradition with the rules of etiquette laid out by The Official UK Rocky Horror Fan Club.

“It’s really hard not to laugh,” Joanne says. “We’re not allowed. The narrator’s allowed and the Frank ’n’ Furter is allowed, but sometimes when people call out stuff that you’re not expecting, that’s not part of the normal script, it takes you off guard. You can see the person acting opposite you, their mouth twitches, and it’s just so hard not to laugh.”

Joanne admits that she even got told off by a fan club member for cracking up onstage. “She was like: ‘you’ve got to learn not to laugh because you’re not allowed’.”

So, how would Joanne describe her character Janet?

“Well, she’s just a bit of Girl Next Door, a little bit prim and proper, but just normal,” she replies. “She just wanted to live the old-time American dream. She just wants a husband and a house and wants to cook and she wants what used to be the dream.”

“She didn’t realise that she liked other stuff as well,” Joanne laughs, hinting at the naughtier elements of the show. “So basically when she gets led astray she turns into to this animal!”

It’s a character arc that Joanne doesn’t have a problem portraying live onstage, especially after her previous show: “I thought I might find it awkward being in my knickers and bra but actually I was in less clothes in Flashdance, so that wasn’t challenging.”

Joanne says she’s surrounded by cast members who have got the whole show down to a tee. And the behind-the-scenes camaraderie has been easy and natural because of the relatively small size of the cast – roughly a dozen performers.

“There’s like six girls in the whole cast so everybody’s really, really close,” says Joanne. “It’s not like people perform in groups and go off in their own groups. We all do stuff together.”

Making the transition from dancing to the theatre has been fairly smooth for Joanne and has been going on for longer than some people might realise.

“I finished competing in 2013 and then I got the call for Strictly,” Joanne explains. “So I moved back to England, because I used to live in Italy.”

“I’d achieved what I wanted to achieve in the competition world and it was always the plan to go into musical theatre. So my agent and my manager, we came up with a plan that when I wasn’t on Strictly, I’d have all the lessons – the singing lessons, the acting lessons – so I have been training now for five years in it.”

She started small in Fringe shows until getting the lead role in Thoroughly Modern Millie.

“But I still like people who don’t really know that I can sing and act,” Joanne says, referring to the excited tweets she sees from people who didn’t realise. “It’s quite nice to shock people.”

With that last statement in mind, it would be easy to make the trite observation that the Rocky Horror Show is ideal. But, as Joanne explains, there’s something more meaningful than shock value that’s behind the 46-year-old musical’s enduring appeal.

“I think both the film and musical are about being who you want to be,” she says. “And I think that it’s a night for the audience to come and do exactly that. They can dress how they want to dress, shout out what they want to shout out, say what they want to say, and do what they want to do.”

The Rocky Horror Show also stars Stephen Webb as Frank ’n’ Furter and Steve Punt (Punt & Dennis, BBC Radio 4’s The Now Show) as The Narrator.

Visit www.eastbournetheatres.co.uk to find out more and buy tickets (£16-£39).