IN A quiet way, the world of stage musicals is becoming stranger by the minute. There is still the odd giant blockbuster, of course; but elsewhere, it’s increasingly a matter of carefully-packaged nostalgia and complex niche marketing, as the popular culture of the last two generations slices itself up and re-markets itself as a series of live celebrations for sometime fans.
Return To The Forbidden Planet - King’s Theatre, Glasgow
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Saturday Night Fever - Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
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And then there are shows like Bob Carlton’s Return To The Forbidden Planet, first seen on the Fringe in 1983; cult shows that attempt an all-embracing send-up of whole swathes of popular culture. In Return To The Forbidden Planet – inspired by the 1956 Forbidden Planet movie, which was in turn loosely based on Shakespeare’s Tempest – Carlton combines a cheeky satire on various aspects of film and television sci-fi with a score made up of a dazzling range of great 1960s pop standards; he also invented the instrument-in-hand style, with cast members also forming the band, that has now become standard for medium-scale musicals in Britain.
This latest touring version of the show – directed by Carlton, with a video chorus in the shape of a grandfatherly Brian May – has its tongue so firmly thrust into its cheek that it sometimes struggles to hold the attention; if the cast obviously don’t believe in the story, delivered in a mash-up of Shakespearean phrases from at least a dozen plays, then the audience is likely to find it less than gripping.
Where Carlton’s production scores, though, is in its sheer chutzpah, its flashy good looks, and the thrilling quality of the musical performance. Sarah Scowen’s Miranda sings up a storm with the The Byrds’ Mr Spaceman; and Mark Newnham, as the lovelorn ship’s cook, almost stops the show with a mind-blowing performance of the Zombies’ She’s Not There – a blazing seven minutes of rock n’roll theatre, cut with quotations from Richard III that is almost worth the ticket price in itself.
Bath Theatre Royal’s current touring version of Saturday Night Fever, by contrast, is a slightly disappointing affair, fully aware of all the multiple meanings of this iconic story of class and aspiration in 1970s New York, but sadly short-changed by some disappointing choreography, and a sound quality that completely fails to capture the legendary breathy, falsetto mood of the Bee Gees’ great score. Director Ryan McBryde’s hard-working cast, led by Danny Bayne as the hero Tony Manero, work hard and vigorously, playing multiple instruments – saxophone, trumpet, guitar, piano – and offering some more-than-decent acting.
In truth, though, there can hardly be a score in musical history that lends itself less well to the rough-edged, brassy, sometimes bluesy sound of a show played instrument-in-hand, and sung by a cast of current young British perofessionals. Saturday Night Fever needs that smooth, pulsing, electronic Bee Gees sound, with the voices and dance moves to match; and without it – well, the story is told, but sometimes the journey from start to finish seems a bit of a struggle.
Seen on 09.02.15 and 10.02.15
• Return To The Forbidden Planet, King’s Theatre, Glasgow, today; Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, 10-14 March. Saturday Night Fever at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, until today.