Such stuff as Fun is made of: Return to the Forbidden Planet Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Saturday 12th May 2018 (preview)

Ovation Productions at Upstairs at the Gatehouse are never short of ambition.  Not content with carving out a reputation for taking on the major musical theatre classics, they now bring us ‘Return to the Forbidden Planet’, a cult musical theatre classic based on a cult movie whose source is Shakespeare’s Tempest.  It completely conforms to our definition of a cult success – it shouldn’t work but it does.  And on our second viewing since Bob Carlton’s creation was first put on in 1990, we can vouch for that.  Stuffed full of classic pop songs from the fifties and sixties and cleverly parodied Shakespearean dialogue, this is a heady cocktail.

This is also another brave choice – the cast have to cover well-known songs made famous but some great singers, and in this production everyone has to turn their hand to a whole variety of instruments and performance skills (zero gravity included), all the time treading a fine line between cod and kitsch.

Overall, Director John Plews has made good use of the limited space with Amy Yardley’s pleasingly garish set, including instrument panels doubling as keyboards.  We have always liked the ‘actor-musician’ style and wished it would get more use, especially since seeing Craig Revel-Horwood’s chamber production of ‘Sunset Boulevard’, and in this case it works very well, getting maximum value out of a relatively small cast and bringing high energy to the set pieces.

We should point out at this point that we attended the first preview of the show, so this review does not reflect whatever might happen on press night but there were some technical problems with the sound balance which resulted in some of the vocals being almost completely inaudible.  Dare we say that the traverse staging might have made this a challenge too far, with the added complexity of performers singing and playing instruments all over the playing area?  There were some occasions when things didn’t quite gel, visually or audibly, but the fantastic energy of the cast carried us through and we are happy to assume that these problems will be fixed and give the cast full reign to show off their talents once the show has bedded in.

Talking of talent, Simon Oskarsson is literally in a category of his own, playing ‘airy spirit’ turned robot, Ariel.  And if that sounds like an impossible task, you will understand how impressive this performance was.  Making his professional debut, he takes this unusual role to another level.  Not only is he multi-talented with a lovely singing voice, impressive body-popping, dance, physical theatre, roller skating and some neat trumpet playing, Oskarsson combines these abilities to create a fascinating character, whose curiosity and bewilderment at the ‘data overload’ of human emotions is portrayed with humour and subtlety.  When Miranda sings about having a ‘robot boyfriend’ he doesn’t seem such a bad catch.

Overall, this is a very strong cast, with Christopher Killik creating a charming and eccentric Prospero.  He dominates the stage physically and vocally as a nicely nuanced unintentional villain.  After a relatively quiet first act disguised as the Science Officer on board, Ellie Ann Lowe makes the mother of all entrances when she reveals herself to be Gloria, wife of Prospero, and a woman with unfinished business.  Her vocals are fantastic and she carries off stiletto-heeled thigh high boots fearlessly.  Edward Hole as Cookie brings his unrequited love of Miranda to the boil with a sizzling rendition of ‘She’s Not There’.  Guy Freeman and Lewys Taylor stood out in the supporting cast as crew-members, giving the music a lift at key moments on vocals and guitar – we would have liked to see more of them and we are sure we will.

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