BOB CARLTON CHATS ABOUT WRITING RETURN TO THE FORBIDDEN PLANET
WHEN the Queen's Theatre's Artistic Director Bob Carlton first sat down to write a sci-fi rock 'n' roll musical called Return to the Forbidden Planet 30 years ago, little did he know how what international success it would go on to have! The show ran for four years in the West End, won a Laurence Olivier Award for Best Musical and delighted audiences in the USA, Australia and Japan.
We catch up with Bob to find out how he created Return to the Forbidden Planet:
I remembered seeing the 1956 science-fiction film Forbidden Planet as a youngster and that it had nicked the story of The Tempest, so I started to write a space fiction show also based on The Tempest called Return to the Forbidden Planet. Then I realised Shakespeare said it better than me, so I nicked lots of stuff from The Complete Works! It was a big hit.
It was performed for years in many rep theatres. One year the theatre producer Andre Ptaszynski said this should go into the West End.
After six weeks, we nearly came off because it only had a cult following. Then everything changed when Planet had a rave review on the Gloria Hunniford Show. I rang the Box Office afterwards to find out if sales had improved but couldn’t get through. I was annoyed because I thought the phones were down. But it turned out they weren’t, the Box Office staff were answering them non-stop and there were queues to see the show! It went on to win an Olivier Award for Best Musical and ran for four years in the West End.
Good shows don’t date. I wrote this in the ‘80s and set it in the ‘50s - and people seem to have liked it each time it’s staged. I was never interested in writing a big West End hit. But Planet had a life of its own and I couldn’t really stop it.
It has huge appeal which crosses class and age boundaries. First of all, it had a cult following. Then, because it was family-friendly, it began to have a much wider appeal. Kids love the space ships, ray guns and monsters. A lot of people liked it because it didn’t take itself too seriously. And I think it was the first time a West End audience had seen actor-musicians - that blew everyone away.
Some of our audiences will laugh at the more obscure parodies of Shakespeare. Meanwhile, others love the classic songs - and these don’t date either. Today’s kids are much more open to all sorts of different music, so they’ll definitely get the rock ‘n’ roll.
Also, it’s always been seen by teachers as a good way of introducing kids to verse - and with all the popular quotes from various plays, you could actually rename it Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits!
It has been fascinating to see how Planet has been presented in other cultures. In Australia, the part of Cookie was performed by an Aboriginal actor playing the didgeridoo!
And in Japan, it was performed in English with the translation projected onto huge panels. The translator was dressed in a space suit and was actually typing out the copy live on stage - so he was part of the cast playing his own musical instrument! The translation was into an ancient Samurai language - which was a sort of equivalent to the blank verse it’s written in, which was great. The only line that couldn’t be translated was “To beep or not to beep”!
The combination of everything may be what people find funny and interesting - the bowdlerised Shakespeare, the wacky sci-fi, the rock ‘n’ roll hits!
I love Shakespeare and I think there’s still a bar to a lot of people understanding and enjoying his work. If you can find a way of drawing people in, making him more accessible, you should do it.
With Planet being loosely based on The Tempest, one of the big changes I’ve made is introducing a “Mrs Prospero” to the play, through the character of Gloria, the Science Officer.
The inspiration for this came many years ago, when the Bubble Theatre were playing their children's shows to the creche at the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp, which was protesting against nuclear weapons. It made me think about the fact that nuclear energy was originally invented by men for a good cause, but which has been used for bad reasons - and it was women who were trying to stop this.
In Planet, the X Factor would be nuclear fission and the Monster of the Id would be the atomic bomb - it shows how Prospero, like everyone, can be perverted by their evil side. As brilliant as his scientific abilities were, they opened up a terrible can of worms in the end. Gloria sees this and has to find a solution.
I have also always loved B-movies. Sci-fi was a huge part of my generation, as was listening to the music of the 1950s and ‘60s. With Planet, I just put together three of the things I really liked - sci-fi B-movies, rock ‘n’ roll and Shakespeare - and it worked.
This was the first show ever written for actor-musicians at the time. It’s a true company piece - the cast play various instruments and swap them round as well, which is really good entertainment.
You can stand up as an actor and recite the greatest speech from Hamlet, and still some audiences may say: “Anyone can do that.” But when you add that to being able to play the electric guitar, everyone loves it! It really wins people over.
A few but not many. The original Monster of the Id was just a few bin bags stuck together! To be honest, we’ve actually had to make a stand against changing it too much - purely because the whole point of Return to the Forbidden Planet is that it is essentially a ‘50s B-movie!
Even in the West End production, we had a huge shuttlecraft cut-out with a sparkler stuck up the back. We could have afforded to have hi-tech ray guns made but we chose to use hairdryers instead - we’ve really had to fight to keep the wonderful tackiness!
Lots of couples in the cast actually got together during the various productions of Planet over the years. And this has produced several babies - the first one actually being my daughter. This was during the run at the Cambridge Theatre, and just before the encore set, the cast made a dedication to “the first space cadet Emily Carlton.” That was such a brilliant highlight for me.
Above everything else, I’ve loved seeing how the audiences enjoy themselves so much when they’re watching it. They really seem to feel part of the show.