Writer: Bob Carlton
Director: Bob Carlton
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
What a talented bunch the cast of Return to the Forbidden Planet are! With boundless energy, they dance, sing and play the instruments for this joyous, fast-moving production. Based loosely on the 1956 film, The Forbidden Planet, itself carrying echoes of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the show is an intoxicating mix of 1950s pulp science fiction imagery, Shakespeare’s words (adapted) and music from perhaps the best period in modern history, the 1950s and 1960s. The set and costumes are gloriously camp but also effective. Rodney Ford’s multi-layered set provides ample opportunities for the young cast to move around apparently defying gravity and also storage for the many musical instruments used during the show, including that darling of period science fiction and unearthly sounds, the Theremin.
Return to the Forbidden Planet is arguably the first juke-box musical, using well-known songs as part of its story-telling. But it does not grotesquely contort its storyline to accommodate the songs – the sings fit the plot. And here is the second major difference to many juke-box musicals – the plot, absurd and camp as it is, actually stands up to some scrutiny. Add to that mix the rhythm and timbre of Shakespeare’s words, culled from across his canon, not just The Tempest, and we have this unique experience. Indeed, on this, its 25th anniversary tour, it retains its populist cult status with audience members dressed for the occasion and enthusiastically joining in when required to save the ship.
Dr Prospero assisted by his wife Gloria has made a breakthrough that could change all of our lives but which could also be dangerous. Gloria has banished Prospero and their infant daughter, Miranda, to the far-off planet of D’Ilyrria where they live accompanied by Ariel, a robot. Meanwhile, Captain Tempest is leading a routine surveying mission on his spaceship, accompanied by his crew and new science officer. Forced to land on D’Ilyrria by a meteor shower and strange attracting force, they meet Prospero, looking rather like a cross between several Doctors Who, Miranda and Ariel. Miranda is immediately struck by manly pipe-smoking Tempest who does not return her affections. Instead, the ship’s cook, Cookie, is smitten. Then the ship comes under attack again, this time by a space monster. Will it survive? How will the love triangle resolve itself? What dark secrets are still to be revealed on The Forbidden Planet?
The cast are uniformly talented, rarely off stage and rarely still. All the movement is closely choreographed so that cast members are always in just the right place, occasionally sharing playing duties on the guitar or holding microphones for their fellows. Of particular note is Mark Newnham’s electric guitar solo as Cookie during a rendition of She’s Not There. During this extended and athletic piece, he evokes the spirit of several guitar greats, including Jimi Hendrix. But this is truly an ensemble piece: Sean Needham’s Captain Tempest struggles with his feelings for Miranda with beautifully played stiff-upper-lip; Jonathan Markwood’s Prospero keeps us guessing as to his true colours and Sarah Scowen’s Miranda is suitably wide-eyed as the ingénue who has never seen other men before. Joseph Mann’s Ariel, in bulky, Robbie the Robot costume, is also a highlight, whether dealing with emergencies or high-kicking spectacularly. Just occasionally, the great musicianship can drown out the singers momentarily, but this is hardly a criticism.
Winner of the 1989 Olivier Award for Best Musical, Return to the Forbidden Planet will never be high art, rather a pastiche but always warm and affectionate. In keeping with its roots, the characters are perhaps a tad two-dimensional – how could they not be, being largely based on comic-book creations? – but it is a great night out that has the audience jigging in its seats from the first notes of Wipe Out to the mash-up at the end.
Photo: Nobby Clark | Runs until 31st January and on tour