“Sci-fi Shakespeare with heart and soul and rock ‘n’ roll”
As Director John Plews says in the programme of his production of Return to the Forbidden Planet “this is Shakespeare, but not as we know it”. Currently showing Upstairs at the Gatehouse in the very pretty Highgate Village (London, but not as we know it!), this production by Ovation is a revival of the original “Jukebox musical”, which combines a mash up of many Shakespearean speeches with a collection of rock ‘n’ roll hits from the 50s/60s. Thinly disguised as The Tempest, with Chris Killik as Doctor Prospero and Stephanie Hockley as his daughter Miranda, anyone with a basic knowledge of Shakespeare's plays will recognise the bard-stardisation of speeches from Macbeth, Othello, King Lear and Hamlet, to name but a few. My very favourite quote is "to beep or not to beep, that is the question". As they'd say in panto parlance, "if you think that's bad, it don't get any better than this!"
Music is an integral part of any production of this show, and every cast member was an excellent singer and could play multiple instruments. For me, the stand out performances were Ellie Ann Lowe, especially as the glamorous G.L.O.R.I.A, Edward Hole, as Cookie and, by far the best performance in a musical I have seen for ages, Simon Oskarsson as Ariel. Is there anything that this young man can’t do? Playing the trumpet and singing whilst robotic dancing and body-popping – are these attributes that casting directors look for these days?
Bob Carlton, the show's writer, has been attributed with inventing the actor-musician - a role commonly featured in musicals and pantos today. This production demonstrates a symbiosis of actor and instrument that is pretty close to perfection. In this regard, Hole totally stole the show with his virtuoso guitar playing. This show is definitely a retro piece and took me back to the 80s when my world revolved around rock guitar riffs, more than it did to the 50s B science-fiction-horror movie it was originally inspired by. However, this simply demonstrates how a musical with a flimsy plot can be situated in almost any era. Thanks to Musical supervisor, Marcus Adams, we were also treated to a smidgen of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’, as well as ‘Yeh Yeh’ and ‘Gimme Some Lovin’’, none of which appeared in the original 1980s incarnation.
In terms of production, I was very impressed at how Plews cleverly directed the actors within the constraints of the tight space available. I loved the way they effortlessly moved the keyboard around on wheels and bounded up the ladder to the platform where Mike Roechip, aka 'Sticks' the drummer, was situated. The space below this platform acted as the starship's hold, complete with obligatory dry ice. A second keyboard was situated at the other end of the stage 'corridor' (the audience sits on two sides of the auditorium) on another platform, in front of a projection screen that included footage of an introduction by Angela Rippon! I won't tell you what that housed or how it heightened an entrance by Prospero, but it was certainly novel, unexpected and fabulous!
Upstairs at the Gatehouse is a venue with heart. The Front of House team is very welcoming, and the seats are pretty comfortable for a pub theatre. I suspect that when word gets about regarding the quality and sheer exuberance of this production and the overall warmth of the whole experience, you might have to kill an intergalactic alien to get a ticket!
Return to the Forbidden Planet
Written by Bob Carlton
Director – John Plews
Producer – Katie Plews
Musical supervisor – Marcus Adams
Designer – Amy Yardley
Stage manager – Ally Southern
Reviewer Deborah Jeffries is a PhD Researcher at the University of East London and Rose Bruford College. Her thesis is entitled ‘Legitimising the Victorian Music Hall’, and it contests the notion of legitimate versus illegitimate theatre. It also investigates theatre architecture, purpose and licensing. She has worked for Hoxton Hall and Wilton’s - two of the UK’s four operational Victorian music halls, as well as the more modern incarnation, Brick Lane Music Hall. Her MA in Drama from Goldsmiths explores the difference between music hall and variety theatre, and the place of each genre in modern popular culture. She has reviewed music and theatre across the UK for over 30 years.