Return to the Forbidden Planet

The tag-line ‘Shakespeare’s forgotten rock ‘n’ roll musical’ says it all: Return to the Forbidden Planet is not a show which takes itself seriously. Nor indeed did the film that inspired it, a quaint sci-fi B-movie from the fifties called simply Forbidden Planet, which itself was a trite retelling of The Tempest. Keep an eye out for it on low-rent movie channels; it’s a camp classic.

Thirty years on, a young theatrical turk called Bob Carlton took this rickety old movie, added a juke-boxful of superannuated pop hits and, famously, stole the 1990 Olivier Award for Best Musical from under the nose of Miss Saigon. How did he do it? Simple. He pioneered the notion of actor-musicians, filled his stage with joy and smashed all the established rules of musical theatre – much as Richard O’Brien had done a couple of decades earlier with his Rocky Horror Show.

O’Brien himself makes a widely-trumpeted ‘surprise’ appearance (on video) in the author-director’s latest revival of RTTFP, playing this time on his home turf: the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch where as artistic director Carlton helms a resident troupe of actor-musicians. The show, though, belongs to a team of multi-talented performers with unbelievable energy, and to Carlton’s cheek in concocting a monster mash-up not only of old pop hits but of Shakespeare’s even older verse. “What light through yonder airlock breaks?” — that kind of thing.

Carlton’s regular designer Rodney Ford returns for this revival and once more supplies a blend of the hi-tech and the tacky (guns are hair-dryers and there’s a steering wheel on the control panel) while Mark Dymock’s flashy lighting grudgingly admits LED lanterns into its retro armoury. But the play’s the thing – or, rather, the players.

Perched high on the captain’s deck, Greg Last (‘Navigation Officer’) is the musical director who holds it together while playing everything from keyboards and theremin to trombone and assorted guitars. Below him, the eight-strong cast play no fewer than forty instruments over the course of the evening, sometimes swapping in mid-phrase and occasionally sharing duties on, say, a single guitar. It’s all part of the show, but my, they pull it off. And they sing, too – extremely well.

The show-stealers are Mark Newnham as Cookie, whose guitar riff in the middle of ‘She’s Not There’ is outrageously showy, and Frederick Ruth as Ariel, the wisecracking, roller-skating robot. Sean Needham sends up the lantern-jaw all-American hero, pipe clamped between teeth, with deadly accuracy, while Jane Milligan and Natasha Moore bring levels of talent to the feisty female roles that are unfair to mere mortals.

Playing with deceptive gravitas, James Earl Adair has more of Michael Gambon than Darth Vader about him, yet while not as young as he was he rocks with the rest of them as the interplanetary castaway. It’s a triumphant revival and a dazzling achievement for a regional producing house. In the words of someone or other (it gets pretty chaotic up there), live long and Prospero.

– by Mark Valencia