“Two beeps or not two beeps”
Early 2015 is turning out to be something of a nostalgia-fest for me as following the Royal Exchange’s superb revival of Little Shop of Horrors is another of the first shows that I came to love as a child – Return to the Forbidden Planet. I can’t recall exactly how many time my sisters, Aunty Jean and I must have seen this show but every time its tour came near us we were there, reversing polarity and loving it every time. Consequently, I have huge affection for the show, even though it is many years since I last saw it, and so naturally the notion of a 25th anniversary tour was one I could not resist as it came into my orbit at the New Wimbledon.
For those without such prior knowledge, Return to the Forbidden Planet is a schlocky sci-fi B-movie version of The Tempest, complete with a rock’n’roll jukebox soundtrack. Not only that, there’s video narration by Brian May. cod-Shakespearean dialogue and any number of quotations lifted from other plays by the Bard and repurposed to intergalactic effect. So a routine space mission led by Captain Tempest gets diverted to a mysterious rock called D’Illyria (“what planet, friends, is this…”) after getting caught in a meteor storm (“goodness, gracious, great balls of fire…”) where they meet the mad Doctor Prospero, his robot servant Ariel and his innocent daughter Miranda.
From thence, a typically Shakespearean tangle of all-consuming love, misplaced affections and space monsters spills forth with not a single opportunity to shoehorn in a song missed – when Miranda falls for the Captain, she laments being ‘A Teenager in Love’; when the feisty Science Officer faces misogyny onboard the ship, only ‘It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World’ can express how she feels, etc etc. With a hugely talented actor-musician ensemble – some playing up to 8 instruments – delivering the music, it can be a thrilling piece of theatre to behold (especially to as impressionable a teenage mind as was mine).
Equally though, there are longueurs in writer, creator and director Bob Carlton’s production when he lets the energy slip too much, the comic zest giving way to a somewhat bloated feel wherein trimming a chorus or two or a laboured quote or three might sharpen up the whole affair. For when it is funny, it’s very entertaining – Mark Newnham’s hapless Cookie is a scene-stealing delight, his exit through the airlock a definite comic highlight, Jonathan Markwood’s crazy eyes as Doctor Prospero are to die for, Steve Simmonds is an endlessly reassuring presence as the reliable Bosun, and Christine Holman’s Science Officer-with-a-past also impresses.
Being able to revisit something so beloved from one’s childhood is always fraught with danger (rewatching the previously nightmare-inducing The Tripods was a huge mistake) but I have to say I loved being able to go back to Return to the Forbidden Planet. It is extremely daft and occasionally bonkers and a bit too long but it is also full of heart and a great deal of musical theatre talent and I think that is what stayed with me all these years, its huge sense of fun.