“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises.” So too is this noisy musical loosely adapted from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the 1950s science-fiction film Forbidden Planet, pairing a cartoonish style with a jukebox rock and roll score. Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, Return To The Forbidden Planet was one of the earliest jukebox musicals – its success at the time is perhaps somewhat to blame for the recent string of similarly structured shows.
Yet what may have been fun twenty five years ago is now a little creaky. The script is a mixture of Shakespearean lines and comedic one-liners, but the puns are showing their age. For a musical, this is an incredibly wordy show with a silly, nonsensical plot that’s difficult to follow – even for those familiar with Shakespeare’s play and clinging on to any parallels for dear life. The choice of musical numbers is also odd. Sure, everyone knows and can sing along to the likes of “Good Vibrations”, “A Teenager In Love”, “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “Born To Be Wild,” but they are shoehorned into the plot out of nowhere and add nothing to the story beyond some musical entertainment. Early on, the space adventurers fly through an asteroid field to the sounds of “Great Balls of Fire” – from there the groans only get worse. Twenty five years later and the current crop of West End shows still haven’t figured out how to combine pop songs with narrative.
This particular Return has some odd directorial choices that make little sense. Whilst the space-age set is well constructed, all of the action takes place within the spaceship with only a screen backdrop to hint at the outside world. It’s a particularly static show, a problem only exacerbated by employing actor-musicians who are stuck to their instruments throughout (even with some clever use as props). This may make sense for a touring show, but as a result there are no set changes, no choreographed dance routines and little visual interest overall.
This immediately places emphasis on the performers. Yet for all the show’s cartoonish bombast, the cast lack the rocket fuel energy needed to set it off into orbit. What starts as a slow-burn never hits full power, the acting missing some crucial characterisation beyond simple stereotypes. In their Ghostbuster-esque jumpsuits the cast all look and sound identical. Musically, the show is loud and brash: the singing impresses only for its volume and the songs consist of unnecessarily long and noisy guitar solos. What’s worse is that the cast all use hand microphones – not only is sound quality therefore not ideal, but they’re forced to awkwardly pass microphones around the stage. This is sometimes used for comic effect, but mostly it means lines are difficult to hear or are missed altogether. That said, some jokes just plain crash and burn.
Another issue is that of audience. With such a convoluted story, wordy script and out of date songs, children are unlikely to find much amusement. For adults there’s certainly the nostalgia factor, but equally some cringe-worthy jokes. And yet, as with something like Rocky Horror, Return To The Forbidden Planet has achieved cult status, with dedicated fans returning again and again to sing and dance in their seats. There is some lighthearted, tongue in cheek fun to be had, but this is not such stuff as dreams are made on.
Return To The Forbidden Planet runs at the New Wimbledon Theatre from Monday March 23rd to Saturday March 28th before touring around the country.