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SXSW Review: In “Alien on Stage,” Everyone Can Hear You Scream (with Joy)

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 21st, 2021

Film poster: “Alienon Stage”

Alien on Stage (Lucy Harvey/Danielle Kummer, 2020) 3½ out of 4 stars.

“In space, no one can hear you scream.” So went the tagline of Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking meld of horror and sci-fi, the 1979 Alien. For the new documentary Alien on Stage, from first-time directors Lucy Harvey and Danielle Kummer, a worthy slogan might go something like this: “In a vacuum, no one can see you shine.” For unwitnessed genius looms as the destiny of the bus drivers of Wimborne Minster (located a little over a hundred miles to the southwest of London, along the English Channel coast).

When their amateur-theatricals group decides to take a break from its annual pantomime performance by trying something new, the time and effort they put into a staged re-enactment of Scott’s movie go virtually unnoticed, very few locals coming to the lone performance. But then, somehow, certain folks from the capital (aka Harvey and Kummer), find out about the show and start crowdfunding to bring it to the West End (London’s theatre district). The rest is magic.

The chestburster scene about to happen in ALIEN ON STAGE ©Lucy Harvey/Danielle Kummer

Though what greets the troupe upon their triumphant starring turn is more like laughter, if of the good-natured variety. But that is because everyone who attends the production knows the source material and is eager to see how it is even possible to do something remotely like it on a limited budget on a simple stage. When the famed reptilian Xenomorph first appears, it is with a sense of “wow” that the audience reacts with howls of glee, overwhelmed by the effect. The same goes for the chestburster moment, the beheading of the android Ash, and more. This is a spectacle for fans, and a glorious one at that. It’s a shame it doesn’t get a longer run.

But the joy is in the making, and the directors take us back to the origins of the idea, centered in one particular family. Son Luc is the writer, father David the director, and grandfather Ray the set designer. Mother Lydia very much gets in on the action, too, playing lead protagonist Ripley. The rest of the cast and crew comes mostly from fellow Dorset bus drivers, all eager for a break from quotidian sameness. The enthusiasm they bring to their version of Alien amazes, throughout.

The Xenomorph attacks in ALIEN ON STAGE ©Lucy Harvey/Danielle Kummer

And indeed, that is the charm of the documentary, which otherwise breaks little creative ground. It doesn’t need to, however, for Harvey and Kummer’s great achievement is in their initial discovery. For the rest, they merely keep the cameras rolling and allow the marvelous strangeness of what happens to cast its spell. It would be nice to see the show from close angles, but by the time we arrive in London, we have already watched all of the prep, and more or less know how it goes. Though we might miss some details of the presentation, we miss nothing of the audience’s delight.

By the end, Alien on Stage transports us much as it does the West End crowd, whatever its limitations of camera perspective. It also inspires with a tale of extraordinary efforts of ostensibly ordinary people refusing to go gently into that good night without making their mark on the world in an inimitable fashion. We should all be so lucky to live such a dream.

The cast of ALIEN ON STAGE ©Lucy Harvey/Danielle Kummer
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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