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Obituary: Bob Carlton

Bob Carlton pictured at The Stage New Year Party 2015. Photo: Alex Brenner Bob Carlton pictured at The Stage New Year Party 2015. Photo: Alex Brenner

Bob Carlton will be widely remembered as the writer of the Olivier award-winning Return to the Forbidden Planet. Inspired by the 1956 science-fiction film classic Forbidden Planet (itself a reworking of Shakespeare’s The Tempest), the show was a huge international success, enjoyed two runs in the West End and pioneered the jukebox musical. It was the purest form of what Carlton called “populist theatre”.

As a writer and director, Carlton’s touchstone was the potency of the pop song and he returned time and again to the nostalgic pungency of chart hits from the past, notably so in From a Jack to a King – “Macbeth with rock songs” – first seen at the Liverpool Everyman in 1985, and the Motown-laced In the Midnight Hour for Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre in 1991. In later years, he baulked at the reputation such shows had given him, pointedly telling The Stage in 2001: “I want it in black and white. I’m a theatre man as opposed to a rock’n’roll man.”

That claim was borne out in his roles as artistic director with the tent-based Bubble Theatre Company – where Forbidden Planet had originated – for four years to 1983 and the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch from 1997 to 2014. Carlton transformed the fortunes of the ailing east London venue, tripling its average audience in his first three years, fending off constant threats of closure and seeing it readmitted to Arts Council England’s national portfolio.

In 1998, he persuaded the local borough council to part with £371,000 to clear the venue’s deficit and relaunch it as a producing house with its own touring company, Cut to the Chase, which claimed to be the first to entirely comprise “actor-musicians”.

Carlton began his career as an assistant stage manager at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford. While a deputy stage manager at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, in 1971 he decided to study drama at Hull University.

An Arts Council training bursary took him back to his hometown of Coventry in 1974, where he was instrumental in setting up its youth theatre and made his professional debut with AE Whitehead’s The Foursome. He attracted attention the following year with Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Duke’s Playhouse, Lancaster, remaining there as associate director until 1978 when he joined York’s Theatre Royal for a year in the same role.

He went freelance on leaving the Bubble and made a move into television, where he directed 40 episodes of Brookside and its 1987 spin-off Damon and Debbie, several Emmerdales and an episode of Porterhouse Blues (1987). Prominent theatre work included Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, with Tim Healy and Peter Howitt as Gus and Ben, at the Haymarket Theatre in 1990.

You’ll Never Walk Alone – his football drama starring Chic Murray as legendary Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly – was seen at the Liverpool Everyman (1984), and he took Return to the Forbidden Planet from Coventry to the Cambridge Theatre in 1989 and on to Sydney and New York in 1991. The following year’s From a Jack to a King moved from the Boulevard Theatre to the Ambassadors Theatre.

On taking up his post in Hornchurch in 1998, he pursued his notion of “populist theatre” with a zeal that turned the venue’s fortunes around. Early success included Arthur Smith’s Live Bed Show (1998) and an expanded revival, with Lionel Bart’s involvement, of Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be (1999).

Recent credits included an updating of Dario Fo’s Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay! to the 2011 nationwide summer riots, staged at Hornchurch (2012), and a touring revival of Forbidden Planet with the Theatre Royal, Brighton in 2015.

He worked regularly at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, where he was twice nominated for a Barrymore award for his productions of the Heather Brothers’ Restoration musical, Lust (which he also directed at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 1993) and Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers.

Bob Carlton was born on June 23, 1950 and died on January 18, aged 67. He is survived by his second wife, Sally Carpenter, and their step-son, his former wife, the actor Caroline Wildi, and their daughter.

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