The summer air is almost humming, and the Winter Garden Halls – with every door and window flung wide – are drumming and pulsating to a startlingly authentic Good Vibrations.
Rehearsals for Return to the Hidden Planet are in full, vibrant flow, for the show of the summer at the Devonshire Park Theatre between August 9 - September 1.
I snatched director Chris Jordan for some insight. “After last season’s success of One Man Two Guvnors, I’ve been looking for another actor-musician show. I was chatting to Matt Devitt, who played last year’s show, and was in the original Olivier-winning cast of Planet, playing Cookie. And he got completely on board – it’s now thirty years on and so he’s playing Prospero this time! Matt and Bob Carlton were prime movers, and since Bob died last January, this will be the first major production of Planet, not exactly a specific tribute or homage, but a good thing to be doing.”
Should we call it a cult musical? “Well, there are certainly Planeteers who follow the show everywhere, but it’s not quite a Rocky Horror. It is the ultimate feel-good show. If you call it a mix of space, sci-fi, rock’n’roll and Shakespeare, you might think that mixture couldn’t possibly work but it absolutely does. It’s brilliant.”
Isn’t The Tempest itself – Shakespeare’s final play – quite an odd work in the first place? “Yes, I’d agree. Shakespeare wasn’t to know it, but it fits perfectly with the whole B-movie heightened-reality thing.”
A week or more in, the unflappable Mr Jordan – actually I have never yet caught him in a flappable state – is happy with progress. “Yes, first priority was to know the songs, and then develop the action. There’s a danger of the show being driven only by the songs, but there is a strong story too. I try not to overstate the Shakespeare origins in case it puts some people off! But in fact those people think – oh, this is Shakespeare but it doesn’t matter, because there’s another great 60s number coming along in a minute!
“My mission is clear: tell the story and keep the narrative strong. It can be weird, with people conjuring up monsters in their head, and in iambic pentameter too!
“We are sure the Planet appeals across the age-groups – older audience members recognise the classic songs, younger ones just love the great music and superb guitar playing. Great rock and roll is ageless. Grandma can bring grandchildren. And just a bit like a pantomime, Planet has a goodie and a baddie and an engagement with the audience.”
It’s tea break, and I’m off to track down cast members. Frido Ruth has mixed Planet memories: “I last played this role, Ariel, in 2014 – but on the preview I fell and busted my knee and had to drop out.” Aha – perils of perfecting all those angular moves in your splendid robot outfit? “I wasn’t even in role at the time, I was helping out with the crew!” But in any case, how do you build your character inside the suit? “The part plays itself. It’s one of those lovely parts where you just have to give over to it and off it goes.”
Now then, your Herald reviewer always enjoys a bit of deep theatrical meaning, but Frido is having none of that. “It is quite hard to talk about Planet, because you find yourself saying, it’s this or it’s that, and by the third attempt people’s eyes glaze over. Planet needs no analysis – it is what you want it to be – come for the rock and roll, come for the Shakespeare, come dressed up, come to get up and dance.”
Bundle of energy Grace Lancaster is catching her breath after a solid half-hour on the Good Vibrations choreography. Grace, playing Miranda, is a graduate of Rose Bruford, probably the pinnacle of actor-musician training. “Muso is the thing to be. There’s plenty of work for performers who can do a lot of different things. I arrived for this show with my trumpet and three saxophones, and I’ve since been put on to keyboard, drums and clarinet! The actor-musician wave might have started with producers cutting costs – because you tour without an orchestra – but there is so much artistry, woven into the action on stage, and audiences get so much more from seeing the life and vibrancy, instead of hiding the band away.
“Our first number in Planet is Wipeout, so when you hit the audience with two drum kits and a huge sound, they are suddenly having to hold on tight and being physically lifted off. Every show should be an actor-musician show!”
“We are simply loving Eastbourne. We can work for hours in thirty degrees, and break off and literally go for a swim. Can’t do that in London! I was here last August with Footloose – I always seem to coincide with your amazing Air Show!”
Jane Milligan, Spike’s daughter, is a lady with Sussex very much in her heart and, of course, with a precious family member buried in Winchelsea churchyard. And she is all but married to this show. “I have added up the time I’ve spent doing Planet, and it comes to four and a half years. A couple of roles in the early days, plus MD, and then in 2012 Bob asked me to be Gloria – and he used to joke with me that, when he died, would I sing Go Now at his funeral. At the time I told him not to be ridiculous, but then when we lost Bob, Matt Devlin got me in and I sang it next to his coffin. Managed it without a single tear at the time, but then when we first sang the number here in rehearsal, there were an awful lot of tears.
“There is pathos in this show, about love and loss, and the good of the planet. Romance too, and the music. Something for everybody. Gets in your blood.” Jane Milligan’s poignant words really struck a chord. These are not just journeymen performers, and this is more than just a musical. See it, and you’ll understand.
By Kevin Anderson