When a lone trumpeter found himself beguiled by an alien spectacle populated by strange creatures, he was inspired to do something similar. So, enlisting a pair of fellow travellers, the trumpeter and his comrades decreed to set out on a mission and boldly go where they'd never been before. The result of the endeavours of Mick Cooke, Gordon Davidson and Alan Wilkinson is Cannibal Women of Mars, a brand new science-fiction comedy musical involving a planet-load of man-eating women, an over-crowded Earth offering cheap emigration deals to Mars, and a set of brand new songs in the best rock and roll musical tradition.
“I went to see Avenue Q,” says Cooke of the left-field musical behind his initial inspiration. “I hadn't been to many musicals, but this seemed really different, and I felt there was maybe more room for something like that. Then at the start of 2011 I got together with Gordy and Alan, and said how do you fancy writing a musical. All I knew at that stage was that it was going to be set on Mars, and that there would be men transmitted to Mars, but I didn't know why that was the case.”
The three co-writers brainstormed for a couple of weeks, “then we decided that maybe the women up there were going to be cannibals,” Wilkinson continues. “Then because of the current times, we decided that Mars could be a waste disposal unit for the unemployed. It's set a hundred years in the future, there's been a hundred year-long recession, and unemployment's got ridiculous, so sex has been banned, and the politicians discover these cannibal women so decide to send the unemployed up there to be eaten. It's a very broad satire,” Wilkinson deadpans.
As with all science-fiction, there is a hint of truth in even the silliest of stories.
“At the time we were writing the play,” says Cooke, “there was a lot of talk about the possibility of manned missions to Mars. I read an article about it, and on the same page there was another article about the pilgrims going to America, and how, when all the crops failed, they resorted to cannibalism, so the two things combined in this ridiculous fashion”
The trio behind Cannibal Women of Mars come from very different backgrounds. Cooke, of course, is best known as trumpet player with Belle and Sebastian, whose vocalist and chief songwriter Stuart Murdoch has also been struck down with the musical bug by way of his God Help the girl project, which is currently being made into a feature film. Cooke also plays with top-notch ska band The Amphetameanies, and composes for TV and film, including the Scottish BAFTA winning animation, The Happy Duckling.
Davidson too is from a musical background, having released early records by Mogwai, Yummy Fur and Alex Kapranos' pre Franz Ferdinand outfit, The Karelia on his F&J records label. As a performer, when not overseeing the news pages of The Scottish Farmer magazine, he is the driving force and main song-writer with The Amphetameanies alongside Cooke.
Wilkinson, meanwhile, is a journalist and children's author, whose first book, a comedy thriller entitled The Christmas Files: Operation Snowstorm, was published in 2012.
Despite such a disparate set of pedigrees, Cannibal Women of Mars is the first theatrical outing for all three co-writers.
“We went to the National Theatre of Scotland,” says Cooke, “who gave is a couple of weeks development. We were adamant from the start that we didn't want to do something that wouldn't fit in a Scottish subsidised theatre,” he continues with a philosophy in-keeping with recent pocket-sized indie musicals such as Midsummer and Whatever Gets You Through the Night.
As any sci-fi geek will tell you, no doubt at length, the precedents for Cannibal Women of Mars are many. While on the one hand, planets dominated by Amazonian-type women have long been the stuff of fantasy fiction both in dog-eared paperback and on the big-screen, rock and roll and sci-fi have shared stages many times in the last millennium.
The former includes Zardoz, John Boorman's trippy 1974 excursion into sexual politics in which a pony-tailed and nappied-ip Sean Connery attempts to reassert a planet's masculinity among a race of women who declare the penis to be evil. Richard O'Brien's The Rocky Horror Show which first appeared at the Royal Court Upstairs not only gave rise to a cult movie that made a star of Tim Curry, but became a commercial success story that finds the play still packing them in on the touring circuit some forty years after it first appeared.
Science-fiction was all the rage in the 1970s, with crazed genius Ken Campbell going so far as to found The Science Fiction of Liverpool to perform an anarchic nine-hour version of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's trilogy of novels, The Illuminatus. With a cast that included Bill Nighy and a house band featuring the nexus of the Liverpool music scene including Bill Drummond and future Lightning Seed Ian Broudie, The Illuminatus transferred to the National Theatre in London, where it opened the Cottesloe Theatre. Campbell went on to another sci-fi project with Neil Oram's The Warp, a cycle of ten plays first scene at the ICA in 1979 before being seen in five marathon performances when the company squatted the old Regent Theatre during that year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Campbell went on to stage Douglas Adams' The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy at the ICA.
A few years later Bob Carlton's Return to the Forbidden Planet grafted rock and roll hits onto a yarn derived from the 1950s film, Forbidden Planet, which in turn was a sci-fi rendering of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Return to the Forbidden Planet went on to win an Olivier award for Best Musical, and has toured the world.
More recent excursions into the sci-fi rock and roll universe include 1995 Edinburgh Fringe hit, Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens, which moved onto the west end in 2006. The burgeoning jukebox musical genre, meanwhile, moved into fantastical territory with the Ben Elton scripted Queen compendium, We Will Rock You.
“Science-fiction lends itself to camp,” Wilkinson points out. “You can take things to extremes and really go overboard. We had quite a few discussions about why the women were cannibals, but in the end it didn't matter. I don't think we need to get someone like Brian Cox in as adviser.”
Cannibal Women From Mars, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, July 5th-20th.
The Modern Scottish Musical – A User's Guide
Stiff! - Forbes Masson arguably kick-started the contemporary Caledonian musical tend in 1999 with this quasi-Faustian camp-fest which he wrote and starred in, before penning two sequels, Mince and Pants.
Sunshine on Leith – Stephen Greenhorn wrote the book for this Proclaimers-soundtracked jukebox musical which is currently being turned into a feature film.
Midsummer – Playwright David Greig teamed up with Ballboy's Gordon McIntyre for this lo-fi two-hander about a very eventful one-night stand in Edinburgh. The play has toured the world.
Whatever Gets You Through The Night – A pot-pourri of writers and musicians raging from Withered Hand and composer John Kielty to Deacon Blue's Ricky Ross combined for a compedium of stories set after dark.
Glasgow Girls – Cora Bissett was the driving force behind this politically charged musical about young asylum seekers, which fused hip hop, rap and world music sounds to powerful effect.
The Herald, July 2nd 2013