Theatre isn’t just the story, the characters, even the idea. Often the experience boils down to that magic chemistry between you and the performers. The live connection. The three-dimensional thrill. The dazzle of watching talent spin up a world in front of you. And there’s no doubting that this production is packed with fantastic abilities, creating a magical mash-up of Shakespeare, sci-fi B-movie and pop hits.
‘Return to the Forbidden Planet’ is perhaps the first of the jukebox musicals. And perhaps the most jukebox of all. Throughout its space tale, based loosely on Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the sci-fi classic of the same name, we’re frequently entertained by a variety of chart hits from the 50s and 60s. If any back catalogue is being singularly plundered, it’s the Bard’s. Between the various songs, weaving between deliberately dubious dialogue, we get riffs on famous lines and full-scale snatches from Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream … even Henry V. It’s a smart and warm-hearted world that feels very fringe, and definitely cabaret. Which isn’t to say ‘this show is cheap’: the fourth-wall play of cabaret and the lo-fi chutzpah of fringe are elements to embrace. This is a show that rightly deserved its Olivier Award for Best New Musical in 1989. It’s a pearl of a piece and pretty irresistible.
But what of this particular production, resurrected after all these years in which ‘jukebox’ has become shorthand for theatrical shortcuts and, as some would say, ‘creative laziness’?
Upstairs at the Gatehouse has been raising its own bar over the years with awards for Legally Blonde, Avenue Q, Anything Goes and The Drowsy Chaperone. Here they take on a show that might seem safe, a crowd-pleaser of limited proportions and easy expectations. But this is no safe bet. This is ambition writ large. Jukebox it may be, but Bob Carlton’s unique take on disparate worlds is a fiendish challenge. The slipping between Shakespeare and song, between kitsch and clever, is no cake-walk for its performers. Comedy chops are vital. Performance chops that navigate shifts in plot and tone are absolutely essential. For the Gatehouse to place this on a traverse stage, peopled with actor-musicians, is another level again. And for the most part, the attempt pays off. When this show hits its stride, the effect is theatrical magic.
In a world of beautifully committed performances, several stand out. Ellie Ann Lowe delivers a gorgeous-voiced, rock-out performance as Gloria. Edward Hole as Cookie gives us a journey that brings Act 1 to a show-stopping solo climax: there’s the voice, the guitar, and the stage presence of a major talent. And then there’s Simon Oskarsson as Ariel, making his theatrical debut, and serving the most excellent, detailed performance that’s almost impossible to ignore, even when the stage is full of other characters’ stories. Whether he’s roller-skating around the tricky playing space, playing glorious trumpet, or using every part of his body to draw your eye, Oskarsson as Prospero’s fast-learning robot is magically magnetic. If this is debut, I cannot wait for what’s next.
If this production has any issues, they are mostly with its tech and staging. While the screen is a necessary device, and its use as a framing device from star-narrator Angela Rippon, wonderfully worked, there’s still a few issues. The lag of an off-stage interaction is awkward. The presentation of Caliban and sci-fi comic panels reads a little ‘student production’. I craved a little less tech and a little more lo-fi at times, to be more like the wooden ‘O’ of the Globe and let this ferocious bunch of performers get creative with the limitations. More fun, I thought. More silly, B-movie movie fun like the shows from fringe marvels like Kill The Beast.
The sound was also an issue at times. Blame the traverse presentation, the live spread of instruments, and the miked performers … the symptom, I guess, of full sound and energy. But a little more tech might have solved the issue. And might still do.
And so to the staging … yes, it was always interesting and the space made exciting. But the picky person in me wanted a little more focus, the confidence to let some scenes play in a single area, rather than spread across the stage. That said, this is a niggle. And in the spirit of this kind of show, it’s more of a nudge, to get this show on its way to the lo-fo slick that will help with the distancing issue that jukebox musicals face. Top tech doesn’t necessarily help. In fact, in this world, I think it hinders. Embrace the limitations, say I. Be a little more fringe cabaret!
Come the end of the show (and there seemed to be about three conclusions), I was definitely entertained and uplifted. Although there may be some three-star decisions and nerves on show, there’s also some five-star performances and five-star moments. With this much talent blasting out a show, who knows, this could well find that giddy orbit of the five-star experience that everyone’s going to love.
Cast: Alex Fobbester, Emma Fraser, Guy Freeman, Stephanie Hockley, Edward Hole, Rhiannon Hopkins, Christopher Killik, Ellie Ann Lowe, Simon Oskarsson, David Persiva, Lewys Taylor Director: John Plews Writer: Bob Carlton Theatre: Upstairs at The Gatehouse Duration: 2 hours (‘traffic of this stage’) Performance dates: 12th May – 17th June 2018