When Bob Carlton first devised a late-night rock and roll show with the
actors he was working with in a tent run by a London fringe theatre
company, he never thought that its mix of science-fiction, Shakespeare
and a live band would have a life beyond its short run. As it is,
Return to the Forbidden Planet is about to embark on a twenty-fifth
anniversary tour which touches down in Glasgow next week and Edinburgh
The latest outing of this commercial smash-hit may be commemorating its
Olivier Award winning West End run, but it already had a colourful
life, first at the London Bubble Theatre, then later at the Everyman
Theatre in Liverpool, when Carlton revived it in 1984.
“I never thought it would go on so long,” says Carlton today of a show
inspired by 1950s sci-fi film, Forbidden Planet, which was inspired by
Shakespeare's The Tempest. “I went to do a show at the Bubble, which
was then being run by Glen Walford, and once we'd done the main show,
we started doing this late night thing with 1960s songs. That was our
vintage, and we used to dramatise the songs. Then when I took over the
Bubble, I decided to link the stories, and that became The Hubble
Bubble Band Show. That did ever so well, and then the band suggested we
should develop it into a full-length show, and that became Return to
the Forbidden Planet.”
By that time, Walford had moved to the Everyman, which had focused on
doing popular theatre for local audiences in Liverpool since its
inception. If her plans to do a musical of classic wild west film,
Shane, hadn't come up against the stumbling block of rights issues,
Return to the Forbidden Planet might not have gone into orbit in quite
the same way.
“Glen gave me the confidence to do Forbidden Planet again,” says
Carlton, and it was so successful that we had to bring it back again.”
Forbidden Planet's next port of call was at the Tricycle in Kilburn,
where artistic director Nicholas Kent had been recommended the show by
actor Alfred Molina, who had been playing Macbeth at Liverpool
Playhouse, just down the road from the Everyman,.After that, as
Forbidden Planet developed into something slicker and bigger, the West
End and numerous commercial tours beckoned. This current tour will
feature an appearance by Queen guitarist and noted astrophysicist Brian
May in virtual form.
While arguably an early example of a jukebox musical long before such a
term was used, Return to the Forbidden Planet is also a text-book
example of how subsidised theatre can feed into the commercial sector
with a vast economic return.
“One of my big arguments when people start talking about how arts
funding should be cut, and of course schools and hospitals should be
funded, is that this one show has earned more money for the exchequer
than every grant combined that the Bubble ever had.”
Originally from Coventry, one of Carlton's earliest theatre experiences
was seeing hippy musical, Hair, a show that broke the mould in much the
same way Forbidden Planet did.
“I thought it was wonderful,” Carlton says today. “Just the fact that
the actors held microphones was different, so you didn't know if it was
a play or a gig, and that was really inspirational for Forbidden Planet.
Carlton was in charge of the London Bubble between 1979 and 1984. In
1997 he became artistic director of the Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch,
stepping down in 2014. During his time in Hornchurch, run on a
traditional repertory model and brought back into rude health by
Carlton after being threatened with closure before his arrival, Carlton
has witnessed a decline in the once thriving English regional theatre
network. His departure also comes at a time when young theatre artists
are embracing a fringe theatre aesthetic once more, reinventing it for
the twenty-first century.
“Things are going back to that, he says, “and I'd like to say it was
because of all that great creativity that existed in fringe theatre in
the sixties and seventies, but in fact it's to do with economics. All
the funding cuts that are happening now means a lot of people who are
doing theatre aren't getting paid, so it's not for good reasons that
this is happening. The arts need funding properly today more than they
ever have before.”
As for Carlton, he's off to pastures new.
“I've got to an age where I want some new adventures before I'm too
old,”he says as he prepares to fly out to Philadelphia to direct a new
production of Noel Coward's Private Lives once he's put Forbidden
Planet back on the road. He'll be back,though, returning to the show
that made his name for the next tour, and the next one.
“I'll be doing Forbidden Planet until I pop my clogs, I hope,” he says.
“It's interesting when a producer comes in and wants to do it now,
during a time of austerity, because it's just people having a ball up
there, and is perfect for these times, because people need that.”
Return to the Forbidden Planet, King's Theatre, Glasgow, February 9-14;
Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, March 10-14.
The Herald, February 4th 2015