During his lifetime Shakespeare knocked out comedies, tragedies and historical sagas. If he’d lived longer he may have got around to trying his hand at science fiction.
If he had it may have turned out something like Bob Carlton’s intergalactic romp and cult classic Return To The Forbidden Planet. The Bard was, after all, adept at writing about strange new lands and civilizations.
But it’s doubtful that the madrigals of the time would have had the same effect as a rocking play-list in this production that features an eclectic mix of memorable pop songs from the last 50 years.
RTTFP, to abbreviate the lengthy title, proved something of a slow burner when it first appeared in London in the 1980s. But it was given a retro-boost by celebrity endorsement and its success took off.
Now it’s touring with a 25th anniversary show, still with a celebrity endorsement (Queen’s axeman and star-gazer Brian May) and it opened at Wycombe Swan last night.
It references those great old sci-fi movies of the ’50s that featured Robbie the Robot and aliens in plastic suits and bad make-up.
But it also spoofs Shakespeare, Star Trek and Blake’s 7 with its crazy set, bargain basement costumes and script.
The central character is a Doctor, complete with a fetching taste in clothes and a handy sonic screwdriver, with the remaining cast and crew dressed in kitsch spacemen outfits and sporting hairdryers as phasers.
So, fellow travellers, as you can see, we’re not taking any of this seriously. This is an interstellar musical that is in an orbit all of its own.
Some of the gags fail to hit their destination and the trajectory is frequently off but what keeps the story together is its songs.
The story is VERY loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. A spaceship crashes on a (forbidden) planet where the crew discover a mad, genius doctor who has invented a crazy serum that has the X Factor.
Prospero is hiding out from his estranged wife Gloria and living on the planet with his sexy blonde daughter, Miranda, and a robot called Ariel.
Miranda (the trumpet playing Sarah Scowen) falls for the pipe-smoking, square-jawed ship’s captain while his love-sick sous chef, Cookie, plots revenge.
The dialogue is bastardised Bard with lines from some of his famous plays adapted for the show “I’m a dad more sinned against than sinning!” “Two beeps or not two beeps?” “Is this a monster I see before me?”..that sort of thing.
The special effects largely consist of the spaceship’s crew throwing themselves around the set although a giant alien monster does make a cameo appearance.
It’s all very silly and hugely enjoyable if comic-strip astro-comedy is your kind of thing.
The problem is that it’s let down by dialogue that is forced, contrived, and generally nonsensical cod-Tudor. It’s frequently just plain unfunny.
But the cast are out of this world, proving to be talented musicians as well as actors.
The demented Cookie (Mark Newnham) gives a sensational guitar solo which should have ended Act I – but didn’t.
Instead we had the mad Dr Prospero (Jonathan Markwood) doing a bit of Elvis with All Shook Up before joining his formidable wife for a rendition of Them’s Gloria.
Both Markwood and Christine Holman, as Gloria, have knockout voices that you could listen to all night. His is gravelly with undertones of a good hard rock pedigree (I’d love to have heard more of Stairway To Heaven) while she blasts away the cobwebs in the dress circle.
Joseph Mann’s robot, Ariel, has his moment when he high-kicks his way through Connie Francis‘ Who’s Sorry Now. He’s also hot stuff at fire-eating.
And Scowen does a belting country rock version of the Byrds‘ Mr Spacemen as a finale.
The show begins and ends with some tremendous drumming for Wipe Out (The Safaris – this show tests your knowledge of pop. I didn’t know that one) and Telstar (natch) from The Tornados.
It’s worth the price of a ticket just to hear the songs.
Return To The Forbidden Planet is at Wycombe Swan until Saturday.
2015 Tour dates
March 2-7, Civic Centre, Darlington March 10-14, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh March 16-21, Regent Theatre, Stoke March 23-28, New Wimbledon Theatre March 30-April 4, New Theatre, Oxford April 7-11, Leicester Curve April 13-18, King’s Theatre, Portsmouth April 20-25, New Theatre, Cardiff April 27-May 2, Grand Theatre, Blackpool May 4-9, Palace Theatre, Manchester