Keen for more thrills after Airbourne? Book yourself in for the theatrical flight of the year at the Devonshire Park Theatre, where Return to the Forbidden Planet will take you to positively stratospheric altitude.
Under director Chris Jordan, the production draws on the huge in-house expertise of Paul Debreczeny, Doug Morgan and Clement Rawling on design, lighting and sound, and the quality is five-star. A multi-talented troupe of actor-musicians turns this much-loved rock opera into a blast of a night. In a theatrical experience rather than a mere show, the audience show their boarding passes, observe the emergency drills, and obediently practise the Inverse Polarity procedure (don’t ask).
Planet is not quite like any other musical. The obvious comparison is The Rocky Horror Show, but this is brighter, more buoyant and less self-obsessed than Rocky Horror. Since winning the 1989 Best New Musical Olivier – seeing off Miss Saigon – it has never really aged, and the improbable fusion of Space, Shakespeare and Rock is still a winner.
For scholars of the Bard, as long as they aren’t too purist, the book is a wonderful swirling pastiche of Shakespeare. A Hamlet quote here, a snatch of Lear there, a nod to Othello, and a bundle of lines from the Scottish Play: ironically, all the tragedies. The Tempest is far from tragic, but its fantastical themes and magical dimensions formed the perfect vehicle for Bob Carlton’s inspired stage show.
Oh, and if you do find the story a little bit confusing, worry not, for Chris Jordan has enlisted a very familiar personality to help out with some helpful explanations of the plot. Sorry, no names, he’s strictly under wraps till your performance starts….
The cast, from seasoned veterans to bright young musical theatre graduates, brims not just with talent but with relish. They are in it, of course, for the long haul: the production runs right through this month until September 1st. But whatever intravenous rocket fuel is propelling this lot, it will surely see them through.
It’s the era of the actor-musician. They switch at will – sometimes during the same number – from sax to drums to guitar and back again, with astonishing versatility. Every musical detail is right, from the hint of tremolo in the opening Telstar theme to the natty Shadows’ footwork in The Young Ones.
The great, classic musical numbers cascade out, an extravagant two dozen of them, and re-created to be as authentic as the originals. For the youngest in the audience – glancing around the other night, the teens were well represented – it’s a musical education, and for the rest of us, the memories flood back.
Matt Devitt, associate director, actually played a youthful Cookie in the original West End production, but here he is a dignified Dr Prospero with a magnificent voice and with a lilt of closing pathos: “Our magic now is all o’erthrown.” And the 2018 Cookie, Mark Newnham, combines an amusing characterisation with an absolutely stunning set of guitar riffs.
Grace Lancaster, an engaging Miranda, sings and moves beautifully, and grows her character nicely from wide-eyed naive Teenager in Love, to all-grown up in Pretty Woman.
The role of Gloria, possibly the best in the show, might have been written for Jane Milligan, and her Go Now – sung by Jane at Bob Carlton’s funeral just a few months ago – brings the house down. Frido Ruth’s robotic Ariel emerges through the vapour from under the stage – great imaginative direction there – to absolutely crease the audience, and there are great turns too from a square-jawed Andrew Gallo as Capt Tempest, and from Steve Simmonds and Tom Connor as Bosun Arras and Damage Control.
Navigation Officer and MD Dan de Cruz expertly steers the ship and allows himself a virtuoso turn on keyboards in the dazzling finale. There seriously were moments when I wondered if the band were about to blow the theatre’s sound system. But those huge, climactic moments with the music unchained, and the energy uncontainable, are central to the show.
Entertaining doesn’t cover it. Enjoyable gets nowhere near. This show lifts the theatre off its foundations. See it, and you’ll still be in orbit until about a week next Wednesday. By Kevin Anderson,