The seemingly endless 'March of the Musical' continues apace with a revival of 'Little Shop of Horrors' by the imaginative and energetic people from the Menier Chocolate Factory (the show has already had a sell out run at the 'Factory' and has now transferred to the West End).
Last seen performed by a professional company in London some 20 years ago, 'Little Shop of Horrors' is a stage show taken from a film, first released in 1960. When Roger Corman found he had access to a few spare days of a film set, he decided to shoot a black comedy and literally threw the production together at breathtaking speed, rehearsing in 3 days and shooting in just over 2. The result has become a cult film, most notable for a brief appearance by a young Jack Nicholson (though not, as many people believe, in the lead male role).
'Little Shop of Horrors' is all about a plant, and a very unusual, talking plant at that. Let me explain... All is not well at Mr Mushnik's florist's shop, and who would think it might be otherwise since it's located on Skid Row in a run-down neighbourhood - not exactly the kind of place one would think a florist's produce would be in great demand. Just as owner Mr Mushnik is about to throw in the towel (or should that be 'trowel'?) his accident-prone assistant, Seymour, displays 'a strange and interesting new plant' that he's been trying to keep alive in order to attract some much-needed custom. Sure enough, it does the trick and the business is saved, but there's something very peculiar about the horticultural oddity. It's not until Seymour is alone with the floral folly that he discovers that it thrives on human blood! And boy does it thrive! It grows with a speed that would overwhelm even the likes of Alan Titchmash, thanks to regular doses of Seymour's blood - who ends up with sticking plasters all over his fingers, and is beginning to 'fade away to a better land' when he realises he needs to find other sources of sustenance for the ever-growing, and vocally demanding plant.
'Little Shop of Horrors' has always seemed to me to have much in common with Richard O'Brien's regularly-revived 'Rocky Horror Show'. In a sense they could be twins, because the music is similar as is the B-Movie, 'horror' nature of the plot. Until now, I've always felt that 'Rocky' had the edge over 'Little Shop'. By coincidence, we've all had the chance to compare them almost side-by-side - 'Rocky' was at the Comedy Theatre just a couple of months ago. However, in the hands of the people from the Menier Chocolate Factory, I have to say that 'Little Shop of Horrors' not only proves to be subtly funnier than 'Rocky', but the songs have more substance, and are more memorably foot-tapping too. Still, it's a tough call.
The most striking thing about this production has to be David Farley's design. Those who saw the superb 'Sunday in the Park With George' will already be familiar with Farley's work. Here, there are no projections, but there's an all-new plant (Audrey II) which seems to grow by the second, and thanks to enhanced gadgetry is capable of more human-like movements and emotions. And Farley's 'Skid Row' is about as seedy and run-down as one could possibly imagine. A neat, slide-out set switches us between the interior of the florist's shop and the exterior of the street without lengthy scene changes, or any loss of fluidity.
A trio of three girls - Katie Kerr, Melitsa Nicola and Jenny Fitzpatrick - admirably pump out the doos and aaas as a kind of Skid Row backing ensemble, though they also bring the show sizzling to life in the opening number too.
Impressionist Alistair McGowan is the demon dentist who has a penchant for beating up girl friend Audrey and a brutally sadistic line in operating on patients - while dosing himself up on nitrous oxide. McGowan also takes on several other roles – agents, publicists, businessmen etc in a quick-change scene in Act 2.
Interestingly, Barry James played Seymour in the original London production at the Comedy Theatre, but here turns his hand to the role of frustrated florist, Mr Mushnik. Paul Keating takes over the role of Seymour and strikes the right chord with a certain boy-next-door charm and youthful naivety, which turn rapidly to angst and guilt when he realises what his plant is forcing him to do. And the deliciously attractive Sheridan Smith plays shop assistant Audrey who valiantly copes with the wounds of love.
With roots that lie in an ultra-low budget film, don't expect much more than pure entertainment from 'Little Shop of Horrors' – this is no Cherry Orchard, after all! Certainly there's a hint of morality, but it's not terribly serious and shouldn't tax anyone unduly. What really makes the show is a keen sense of dry humour embodied in Howard Ashman's book and lyrics. But there are also some great numbers such as 'Skid row', 'Somewhere that's green', and 'Suddenly Seymour' – all well sung by a vocally able cast. And with a well-crafted and faithfully inventive production by director Matthew White and the team from the 'Chocolate Factory', it looks like 'Little Shop of Horrors' is set fair for a lengthy growing season, suitably located on the borders of Covent Garden!
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Now, in the West End, Matthew White's production strikes many witless, dull and gross notes." MADDY COSTA for THE GUARDIAN says, "A charming production...Little Shop is kooky, irresistibly feel-good and deserves to run and run." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "I can't see how anyone could fail to have a good time at Matthew White's exuberant show." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Everyone who saw Matthew White’s Horrors revival at the Menier Chocolate Factory last November seems to have enjoyed it, and, though transfer has clearly deprived it of intimacy, everyone should enjoy it now that it is following the same theatre’s Sunday in the Park with George into the West End."