For the 25th Anniversary tour the, Olivier awarding winning Best Musical, Return to the Forbidden Planet lands solidly on Leicester's Curve theatre main stage this week and takes off to huge applause. This fun sci fi show is packed with musical numbers from the 1950s and 1960s with the instruments all played live by the eleven strong cast of actors. Even before the show has begun the actors are out on the stage welcoming and chatting amongst the beaming audience. From the Return to the Forbidden Planet tee shirts in the audience it is clear that the show has a big fan base. As the high energy show launched into the first act and continued to rocket skywards you could see why.
The show always has a well known personality that is connected to space as Chorus – a pre filmed role – and this year it is Brian May Queen guitarist, music producer and Doctor of Astrophysics and May comes across well as the guide to the piece.
None of the roles are serious drama, more like pastiches of 1950s sci fi movies like the original classic Forbidden Planet. The acting is meant to be a mix of postured and over the top – the characters almost like walking talking and singing cartoon people and the story, tenuously linked with Shakespeare's The Tempest, is there to provide a narrative base for the songs and action. In director and creator Bob Carlton's musical the spoken dialogue is a mix of faux Shakespeare and actual Shakespeare quotes. It works amusingly well and the 'to be or not to be' gets the biggest laugh of the evening.
The internal space ship set design by Queen's Theatre Hornchurch associate designer Rodney Ford is a rock solid construction of steps and levels with enough bells and gadgets to satisfy any bad sci fi fan. It has an open roof through which we can see the stars and on coming wacky monsters. Additionally, the audience enjoy a deliberately corny effect of a space shuttle escaping the main ship into the blackened star lit cosmos. Ford first designed for Return to the Forbidden Planet at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre some thirty years ago and has also designed for many versions of the show in the UK and abroad. He is also credited as the costume designer.
The show is quite lengthy at two hours playing time but the time zips by quicker than a star ship hero can whip out his ray gun. The multi-talented cast play an amazing array of instruments between them including tenor and alto saxophone, clarinet, electric guitar, drums, flute, piano, oboe, bass, electric keyboard, harmonica, trumpet, trombone and even a cowbell!
The action is rapid pace augmented with songs to add musical depth to the story. All the cast are accomplished singers and wonderfully re-create the sounds of popular songs such as “A Teenager in Love” “Great Balls of Fire” (well what else do you sing as the space ship dodges through the asteroid belt?) and “Born to be Wild”. In total this toe tapping rock and roll soundtrack features twenty-seven hits.
Actor Sean Needham never lets up the comedy with his pipe smoking, square jawed space captain Captain Tempest and one of the highlights of the show is his rendition of “Young Girl” sung to the sweet and innocent Miranda played with a heart melting coyness by Sarah Scowen. Another relative youngster in the cast is Mark Newnham as Cookie the ship's hopeless romantic. Newnham's electric guitar solo is a show stopper and his acting as the lovable Cookie is tongue in cheek believable.
Jonathan Markwood excels as the crazy mad scientist Dr Prospero throughout and is powerful in his conjuring up of the space monster that attacks the ship before the interval. The audience recognise the extracts from King Lear as he whips up a storm of revenge and Mark Dymock's brilliant lighting design coupled with thundering footfalls of the monster coming closer (sound design by Ben Harrison) create real excitement and tension. Much hilarity is had from the 'clearly not real' big tentacles of the monster attacking the cast. This spoof monster is so like the old movies where the special effects were very poor and handmade compared to the CGI effects we enjoy today.
Of course the audience always look forward to seeing the robot character Ariel and although not on roller skates (guess the multiple steps rule that practicality out) Joseph Mann as Ariel does not disappoint. His character is not overly robotic but he works well in a lovable android way. Mann also has a superb singing voice as well as a great extra talent in fire breathing.
The female Science Officer played with gutsy effervescent by Christine Holman is a star turn in a play full of stars. Her energetic and sexy full on performance lights up the stage and although she appears to disappear and desert the ship by escaping in a space pod during the early asteroid storm she makes a surprising new entrance with Ariel later in the show.
There is so much to recommend in this silly science fiction show with its high energy, daft humour, campness and quadruple threat talents (acting, singing, dancing and live playing of musical instruments) and I would happily sit through the Queen's Theatre Hornchurch's version currently at Curve, again and again. It is no wonder it is loved through the world.
Tour details found HERE