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SXSW 2021: “Alien On Stage” Documentary Film Review

Luc, who wants to be a screenwriter, is offered the opportunity to write a stage play adapted from a film — for a local play put on by drivers, supervisors and engineers of the Wilts and Dorset Bus Company. He suggests “Kill Bill,” “Alien,” “Pulp Fiction” or “Tombstone.” As you might’ve guessed, the one they decide to run with is Ridley Scott’s “Alien” from 1979, which comes together in Wimborne, Dorset, U.K. “Alien On Stage” is the story of how all of the moving parts came together due to the efforts of employees of a bus company, as well as how it became a beloved theater act.

Luc is not just the writer of the adaptation; he also works the sound and helps with costumes. His mother, Lydia, is a former bus driver and plays the lead role of Ripley in the play. Lydia’s husband, David, is a day shift manager and the show’s director, and David’s son Karl is a bus driver and the play’s stage manager. Luc’s girlfriend, Amy, also assists with sound and costuming, and Lydia’s father Ray (Luc’s grandfather) built the set. Almost all of the cast and crew comes from the bus company, but those who don’t are close family and friends.

“Alien On Stage” film poster | Image courtesy Danielle Kummer and Lucy Harvey

It’s clear that the family at the center of this documentary loves “Alien” (and possibly the whole franchise), but it’s interesting to see what the other cast and crew think of the film. The bus driver who plays the role of Parker admits, “I’ve seen the film but once. I’m not a sci-fi fan.” It also seems as though Ray is not quite as familiar with either the film or set-building. The fact that people who don’t have a specific passion for the subject matter end up working so hard to bring this experience to life makes it all the more special.

Throughout the documentary, you get to see a lot of the struggle that comes with putting on a play when no one involved is a professional actor (or behind-the-scenes crew). An operations manager for the bus company is in the film saying, “I would not have picked Dave” to be the director of an amateur play because “he’s quite exacting.” There is a bit of a mismatch in the levels of seriousness versus silliness that people put into it, but it isn’t any less important to those who don’t treat it as sincerely. There’s such an obvious flow of fun and camaraderie, even through the stress, frustration and nerves they all feel.

The show’s ticket sales are going to charity, and before the 20-minute mark you get to see the opening night of their local production. Only around 20 people showed up to watch, and Luc called it “a bit of disaster” because of how much effort had been put into it. Then, Danielle Kummer and Lucy Harvey came from London and fell in love with the show. They started a fan club for the performance, and started lobbying for it to come to a stage in London, which started the ball rolling on this very film (how meta). Kummer and Harvey are the co-directors and producers of the documentary “Alien On Stage” — their debut feature doc — and they do appear it in a couple of times, briefly. (Kummer also edited the film.) That sets it apart from many documentaries, where those in front of the camera and those behind the camera don’t visibly (or audibly) interact.

L-R: Jacqui as Ash, Scott as Kane with facehugger and Jason as Captain Dallas | Photo courtesy Danielle Kummer and Lucy Harvey

From there, the rest of the documentary is about the lead-up to the performance at London’s Leicester Square Theatre, which would become a one-night-only event. And, if you’re wondering: Yes, you do get to see chunks of the play performed in the documentary. In fact, seeing parts of the performance (and the audience reactions) feels like a payoff for viewers of the documentary; during the countdown to the event, I found myself feeling nervous for the cast and crew of the play. But it turned out well, from the writing and set design to the costuming and props — not to mention that the show sold out.

The props and special effects were done by a night shift bus station supervisor named Pete, who said he’d “never done anything like this before,” but it’s hard to believe when you see the finished product. I was truly impressed, and he deserves credit for the look of the eggs on the planet, the articulated tail of the Xenomorph and everything in between.

Lydia as Ripley and Scott as the Xenomorph | Photo courtesy Danielle Kummer and Lucy Harvey

Though this is a debut feature for the filmmakers, it also looks good. It’s not as clean as some documentaries, but it’s fitting for the subject matter and style. They did make a couple of choices that I loved. The first was including footage from 1979’s “Alien” at key points. The second was using a visual comparison of piloting the Nostromo and driving a bus, then giving updates on the status of the story via a computer screen that resembled the one on the original movie’s spacecraft. Those parts were designed and edited well, and they added quite a lot to the film.

After you’ve been on a journey with the play’s cast and crew, the end feels like such a relief. David introduces the cast members to the audience, then announces that they’ll go for drinks at the bar afterward. Seeing how the cast loved the reactions and were so excited to meet fans of the play is joyful. Watching it during a pandemic — when bars and live theater and crowds are out of the question for most people — is bittersweet. It brings both memories and hope for the future, when things like stage plays can be enjoyed by so many once again.

Featured image courtesy Danielle Kummer and Lucy Harvey

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