As we take our seats in the New Wimbledon Theatre, before we’ve even had time to take off our jackets, my friend and I are accosted by the bright beaming face of a woman in a silver jumpsuit. As a member of the space crew she’s trying to put us at ease before our intergalactic flight of rock ‘n’ roll; sadly her high-pitched, phoney American accent and lack of regard for personal space does little but set us both on edge. It’s less safety warning, more wasps buzzing in your ear and the message it sends is clear: this is going to be a bumpy flight.
Back for its 25th anniversary tour, Return To The Forbidden Planet has obviously gathered quite the strong following, a loyal fan base who readily join the crew of Interplanetary Space Flight 9 on their confusing and chaotic journey to the planet D’Illyria, powered by rock ’n’ roll classics of the 50s and 60s. The musical is based on the seminal sci-fi film The Forbidden Planet and both are inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, though Return cherry-picks the most famous lines from across the Bard’s works and jams them into a plot that makes so little sense you very easily feel lost in space.
The show falls into a classic pattern of the jukebox musical, leaning hard on its musical numbers (the staging is basically a concert setup with a CBBC spacecraft erected around it), weaving in a flimsy love story (more on that monstrosity later) and trying to please or distract the audience with shiny things and pop culture references.
It is wise, however, to play to your strengths and this cast’s strength certainly lies in their musical prowess. Each actor plays at least three instruments and they’re constantly switching around, even quite literally sharing their guitars. Mark Newnham stands out as Cookie, the hopeless romantic who (I think) briefly turns evil in pursuit of teenage love (it’s so very brief you barely catch it) but belts a guitar solo reminiscent of Marty McFly’s maddening finale at the Enchantment Under The Sea dance, only moments after a sweet a cappella serenade of ‘A Teenager In Love’. Joseph Mann does his best to pop and lock some comic relief into situations as ‘coke can’ robot Ariel, though he’s more Jar Jar Binks than C3PO and disappointingly there wasn’t a pair of roller skates in sight!
Amongst all the absurdity and misgivings the most maddening part of the performance is the terrible love story between Captain Tempest (Sean Needham) and Miranda (Sarah Scowen). An entire musical number is devoted to explaining that she is underage and he is a responsible adult, yet guess what happens when she puts on a dress and a bit of makeup? Maybe I’m being heavy-handed, but given recent revelations, this makes things feel a bit icky to say the very least.
For a show with a cult following and such an iconic starting point, Return To The Forbidden Planet fails to reach its full potential. There are moments where you can’t decide if the cast are taking themselves seriously or are in on the ridiculousness of it all; there needs to be more clarity in such moments, more of a wink to the audience. If it were more camp or had more edge I reckon it could draw the kind of crowds that flock to Rocky Horror and The Room. As things stand you’d be better taking your nan or someone who fancies a bit of nonsensical musical nostalgia. Or a friend who loves Brian May, because his video cameos as the Chorus may be brief, but they are something kind of wonderful, not least because they signal the end of the acts.
Return to the Forbidden Planet is playing at New Wimbledon Theatre until 28 March, then on tour until 9 May. For tickets and more information, see the Return to the Forbidden Planet website. Photo by Nobby Clark.