What do you get when you take a spaceship called "The Albatross" playing 1950s and 1960s (well mostly)jukebox hits and crash land it into Shakespeare's plays ? The answer, that hard-to-define stage musical that is "Return to The Forbidden Planet".
At its heart, this show is based on Shakespeare's "The Tempest" and the classic 1956 MGM science fiction film "Forbidden Planet" (also loosely based on the same play). The film is regarded by many as maybe the best of the 1950s science fiction classics, as it was the first to place all the action entirely in space and on another planet.
The basic story is simple. Out in space the crew of The Albatross encounter an unknown planet after being damaged in space by a meteor storm. Their science officer escapes in their last escape shuttle and we meet Dr Prospero from the planet, his beautiful teenage daughter Miranda, and the robot called Ariel. We also learn that Dr Prospero has created a drug that allows him to use the unused portion of his brain to develop "telegenesis", allowing him to create matter from thought alone.
Our crew on tonight's flight are Captain Tempest (Sean Needham), Science Officer/Gloria (Christine Holman), Cookie (Mark Newnham), Dr Prospero (Jonathan Markwood), Ariel (Joseph Mann), Miranda (Sarah Scowen), Bosun Arras (Steve Simmonds) and Navigation Officer (Greg Last). We also have appearances from Grant Stott and Brian May of Queen (on film only).
It is a long time since I have seen this show (now in its 25th year), but it still retains that deliberate on stage acting style reminiscent of camp 1950s films and cinema serials, so this makes any evaluation of the acting on stage difficult as it is all meant to be this way.
Captain Tempest is, as you would expect, in command of the ship, but he is clearly not too bright. He is also completely devoted to his career and the only woman in his life is his ship. Like his 1950s counterpart of Dan Dare from the Eagle comic he also walks around smoking a pipe. Science Officer (and later revealed as Prospero's wife Gloria) has an odd accent that I am not sure where it comes from.
Cookie as you would expect is the ship's cook and the character is based heavily on the cook from the original 1956 film. Dr Prospero gets to be a real over the top Shakespearian villain while visually looking a bit like one of the Doctors from Doctor Who, and Ariel the Robot has light touches of Robbie the Robot, but having to be humanoid for the show does look more like a Dr Who Cyberman. Miranda as the teenage daughter of Dr Prospero gets to meet "men" for the first time and in her best period outfit falls immediately in love with The Captain not realising that Cookie has fallen immediately in love with her.
Visually, the set and costumes owe much to the original film, and much of the dialogue is borrowed from Shakespeare's plays. What dialogue is not from this source is almost all still in a Shakespearian style. It is an odd visual and audio mix that, once you realise what the cast are saying and the source material they are using, works surprisingly well and is in parts so cleverly used.
Even though he is Captain, Sean Needham does not in this part get the best character as his part really is a stereotyped cardboard cut out. The two best parts go to Mark Newnham as Cookie (the cook also got one of the best parts in the original film) and Jonathan Markwood as Dr Prospero.
This is after all a musical and Mark Newnham gets more on-stage musical time than anyone else in the cast and gets the chance to put in some nice guitar solos too (adding some little AC/DC references as he goes along too). Jonathan Markwood gets to do a very good version of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood". Sarah Scowen as Miranda gets all those teenage songs to sing and she does them well, including a version of Mr Spaceman by The Byrds. Christine Holman as Gloria gets some classics too. Let us not forget the singing/dancing robot Ariel (Joseph Mann) who gets this great little adaptation of "Who's Sorry Now" by Connie Francis to sing. Miranda of course also gets to cover in Connie Francis style "Robot Man" with him.
Musical references are everywhere here. Right at the start as they enter light drive (another first from the original film), and then hit weightlessness, we get a musical montage of Wipe Out (The Surfaris), Telstar (The Tornados) and Albatross (Fleetwood Mac)...well I suppose they could not miss Albatross out. Later on we get all sorts of film/television and musical references...Mission Impossible, James Bond, Clint Eastwood westerns and many more.
One nice little touch for me was the way that Act I ended with the Monster from the id attacking Gloria and the crew and then pretty much rerun the same scene again at the start of Act II. A nice little touch reminiscent of how the old weekly cinema science fiction serials worked.
Grant Stott puts in small but effective use of time on stage talking to the audience in a very traditional role as the story narrator.
There are lots of references in here from popular culture and music of the 1950s and 1960s (and a few later ones too). This itself can be the one weakness of the show as you can easily miss so many little things as even the core songs (never mind the musical snippets) require you to be familiar with pop and media culture of the time frame, and as the show gets older and its potential audience younger then this does create a reference point gap. It is however nice to see that while retaining the core musical material, some newer items have been incorporated into the show.
Return to The Forbidden Planet is what it is. A musical homage to the 1950s and 1960s using the visual imagery of the classic 1956 film while cleverly using some of the best known lines of work ever written for stage. It is camp, it is over the top, but you need to do nothing more than just sit in your seat for the evening and enjoy the show and the mild audience participation. Sadly, the theatre was not that busy for the show (pouring with rain outside), so a bit of that audience participation feeling was missing from the show. You are not going to find any thought provoking moment or some hidden meaning of life at this show, but you are going to have an evening of just simple on-stage entertainment.
Review by Tom King