Return to the Forbidden Planet, Little Theatre, Wells

promptforbiddenwellsBOB Carlton’s musical adaptation of the 1956 film Forbidden Planet, itself loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, was developed at the London Bubble Theatre in the early 1980s, and made its way to the West End via Liverpool’s Everyman.

I first heard of it on Woman’s Hour – the fact that a female, in the shape of musical genius Kate Edgar, was in charge of the arrangements and musical direction of this innovative show was obviously deemed newsworthy in 1988 – and I soon booked tickets to see it at the Cambridge Theatre in London’s West End. I was absolutely amazed at the skill of the cast – not just acting, singing and dancing, but also playing the instruments.

The radio interview mentioned the cast learning riffs and melody lines on instruments they did not usually play, and my fascination with such actor-musician shows has continued ever since, right up to the very latest incarnation of this wonderful genre, Singin’ in the Rain, currently playing at Salisbury Playhouse, so I was delighted to hear that a Return to the Forbidden Planet was planned for Wells, as I have seen it so many times, including 11 times in 1999 (when local musician Graeme Budd was in the cast of a national tour) and twice as a conventional production, with separate band.

I approached this evening with mild caution and slight concern: how would a local company manage to find people who could sing, act, dance, play an instrument or three, whilst also working during the day, as most amateur performers do? I was reassured as soon as I saw the programme and realised that the good folk of Wells had decided to go down the conventional route, with an onstage band playing all that wonderfully nostalgic rock and roll with all the authenticity of a village hall covers band, and to cover the stage with an army of uniformed spaceship crew, all fronted by the usual line up of principals.

The whole experience of Lois Harbison’s production began with that programme, the reverse of which was the Intergalactic Flight Safety Card with all necessary instructions on what we should do in the event of an emergency, including some lovely comedy versions of those found on most modern airliners.

This was continued as the crew ran through the safety drill, with the all-important practice of polarity reversal, and the whole audience entered into the spirit of things, playing along, getting to their feet to perform the polarity reversal, which helped settle us all in for the show, and we were all back on our feet towards the end of the show when polarity reversal was the only way to save the spaceship.

The set was fantastic, dressed with knobs, buttons, lights, sliders, doors that slid open as well as they do in Star Trek, a good area of flat floor for “industrial friend”” Ariel to rollerskate on, and a great screen on which one of the best performances of the show took place, from newscaster Neil Howiantz, who admittedly had the luxury of pre-recording his part. He had comedy timing and cool delivery to be very proud of. Costumes were also great and completely believable, with a masterstroke of giving all the female crew members blonde wigs, somehow enhancing the experience of science fiction.

To single out too many of this ensemble cast would be unfair, but even though I know the show so well, and therefore that this one character is always loved, Matt Blake’s Cookie was very endearing, well sung, and with just the right level of declamation of the Shakespearean lines, something that Captain Tempest and Doctor Prospero, played respectively by Nick Barlow and John Howden, also managed very well. Gloria the Science Officer, played by Sharon Edmonds, also spoke the iambic pentameter well and has a beautifully accurate singing voice too. It would also be rude not to mention Nicky Hann as Ariel, on roller skates for the entire show.

Some of the Shakespeare references always glide over the heads of much of the audience, but who can fail to laugh at such gems as “two beeps, or not two beeps, that is the question?” and “beware the Ids that march” –  just a couple of the bastardised lines from at least 12 of the Bard’s best works?

The whole company was at its best during the big numbers, with lovely harmony singing, some great doo-wop backing and dancing by every single member of the company, not just a small group of specialists who only dance, but everybody joining in, choreographed by Eden Simpson.

There were some great musical solos from the band under Sheila Ross too, especially from lead guitar and trumpet from Captain Tempest himself, linking things back to that original production where all the cast also played all the music.

The Mayor of Wells asked at the end, “Where else in Wells could you see something like that”, and I could not agree more.

The show continues until Saturday 21st May.


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