Tuesday, 4 September 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: Return To The Forbidden Planet

The Millennium Forum Youth Theatre Group's lively 2012 production proves that sometimes, familiarity can be a good thing when it comes to entertainment

Return To The Forbidden Planet began life towards the end of the 1980's as a "Jukebox Musical", which drew inspiration both from Shakespeare, particularly The Tempest, and the similarly named 1950's film. Less a sequel to Forbidden Planet than a love letter to '50's sci-fi pulp, classic rock tunes and the world's greatest dramatist, the play succeeds by establishing a strong rapport with the audience from the beginning and never letting go. It's like a classier Mamma Mia!, in that one shouldn't concern him or herself too much with the plot or themes, which are either well worn, all over the place, or both. This really is all about the spectacle.

Set some time in the not-so-near future, the film charts the progress of the Starship Albatross on a routine survey flight led by Captain Tempest (Paul Doherty). When the ship is damaged by a violent and unexpected asteroid storm, the new Science Officer (Alison Maybin) abandons ship before it crash lands on the mysterious planet of D'Illyria, aka The Forbidden Planet. There, the crew encounter Doctor Prospero (Kevin O’Kane), who has his own tale to tell. Fifteen years ago, his wife Gloria betrayed him, shooting him out into space in an old satellite just as his last invention was nearing completion. Unknown to Gloria, however, their baby daughter Miranda was asleep on board. Touched by the tale, Tempest invites Prospero, his robot Ariel (Aaron Deery) and a teenage Miranda (Niamh Meehan) onboard the ship. Having seen no other humans except her father, Miranda immediately falls head over heels for Tempest, much to the chagrin of Cookie (Joseph Wells) who has developed a crush on her himself.

Will the love triangle sort itself out? What is Prospero's great invention? Will the crew escape the perils of the Forbidden Planet? And will we make it to the bar on time at the interval? All four questions and more are answered throughout the remainder of this entertaining production.

Such a musical, which feels like a song and dance amalgam of Star Trek (yes, Forbidden Planet inspired the classic TV series) and Shakespeare, can easily fall flat without a consistent tone, good pacing and a determined cast. Fortunately, the Millennium Forum Youth Theatre’s production has all three.

The show lends itself perfectly to the sensibilities of local director Jonathan Burgess, whose style is well suited to ensemble pieces. From the moment we are greeted by cast members in the guise of the ship’s crew, saying: "We hope you enjoy your flight" you already feel at ease with these performers. The familiarity of the songs, which include "Great Balls Of Fire", "Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood", "Gimme Some Lovin'" and "Oh, Pretty Woman" is a boon to both classic rock fans and those who simply love a good musical.

Remarkably, the very Shakespearean dialogue, which features famous quotes from Romeo & Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream and of course The Tempest, to name but a few, never once jars in context with the futuristic setting. Of course, the plot is nonsensical – you tend to spend more time focused on the love triangle than on whether or not the ship will get off the planet, such is the power of the songs – but the fine effects, self-aware campiness and top-notch choreography (especially during "G-L-O-R-I-A") keep you watching.

Ever member of the principal cast succeeds in their own inimitable manner. Paul Doherty commands the stage with considerable ease, Alison Maybin is all-too-convincingly cold, and Kevin O’Kane is a welcomingly boisterous and bullish Prospero. Aaron Deery’s Ariel comes across like Data from Star Trek on roller skates, but minus the childish characteristics, resulting in a genuinely more interesting (not to mention funnier) character. Also worth a mention are Joseph Wells, for his endearing goofiness, and Niamh Meehan, for her charmingly naive portrayal of Miranda.

If there's one thing that both musicals like Return To The Forbidden Planet and the youth group have taught us, it's that familiarity need not be a hindrance in the name of entertainment.

(This review originally appeared in the Derry News on August 16, 2012.)