Audrey II is firmly planted in South London.
There is something really quite fitting about the current incarnation of the Howard Ashman/Alan Menken cult classic Little Shop of Horrors, presently touring throughout the UK. The Sell a Door Theatre Company production has sunk its roots (and its sharp teeth) into the New Wimbledon Theatre this week, where it officially opened last night and much like the musical’s source material, the show feels garishly low-budget and fiendishly entertaining at the same time.
The original 1960 Little Shop of Horrors B-Movie was a product of Hollywood’s ‘creature features’ craze which began in the 1950s and gave us such guilty pleasures as “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” in 1954 and “The Fly” in 1958. The film, which also featured a young Jack Nicholson in a small role, was produced by the “King of the B-Movies” Roger Corman from a mere $30,000 budget and rapidly achieved cult status.
Fast forward 22 years and a young writing team of Howard Ashman (Book & Lyrics) and Alan Menken (Music) turn the unlikely subject into a musical which journeys from off-off-Broadway to off-Broadway to the West End (produced by Cameron Mackintosh at the Comedy Theatre – now Harold Pinter) all in the space of a year. Then Hollywood came-a-knockin’ and a two-time Oscar-nominated movie musical adaptation followed in 1986, starring Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene and Steve Martin. The musical duo are perhaps best known for their work during the legendary ‘Disney Renaissance’ era with the animated classics “The Little Mermaid” (1989), “Beauty and the Beast” (1991) and - posthumously for Ashman - “Aladdin” (1992). But Little Shop of Horrors was unquestionably the show that put them on the map.
The score is filled with an eclectic mix of musical numbers showcasing Menken’s talents and ability to write in a variety of musical styles. From Yiddish folk music with “Mushnik and Son” to the Motown-esque numbers provided by Chiffon, Crystal and Ronnette to soothing ballads such as Audrey’s “Somewhere That’s Green,” experiencing the score live is a rare opportunity to appreciate the beginnings of musical genius.
In this production the band – which is solely comprised of keyboard, bass guitar and percussion – is situated behind the murky glass of the ‘Skid Row Music Box’ stage left. However, the lack of instruments doesn’t diminish the musical’s impact – another testament to the score. Furthermore, the cast is also kept to a modest number of nine (excluding the puppeteer and voice artist behind the monstrous Audrey II). Inevitably some of the choreographed numbers feel a little sparse with such few bodies on stage, but the predominantly young cast are exuding so much energy in compensation, you soon forget the omission of a massive ensemble. A special mention goes to Vanessa Fisher, Sasha Latoya and Cassie Clare for ensuring the pace and energy levels remained high as Chiffon, Crystal and Ronnette, respectively. The whole cast gels well together, each suitably portraying their own character’s vulnerabilities and former X Factor contestant Rhydian Roberts delivers a maniacally convincing performance as sadistic dentist Orin in Act I, and returns in Act II as a plethora of different characters to prove his comic timing-chops. My hat also goes off to puppeteer Josh Wilmott who survived that unbearable heat last night inside the huge, man-eating plant itself, often upstaging his human character counterparts.
David Shields’ scenic design resembles the lovechild of a discarded Tim Burton set and a Haunted House from one of those travelling fairs from the 1980s. It perfectly complements the style of the aforementioned over-the-top and intentionally cheap-looking B-Movie and Charlie Morgan Jones’ lighting design added to the tongue-in-cheek approach with harsh red lighting during the horror scenes along with greens and purples throughout, typical to the science-fiction genre.
You can either leave the theatre with an ethical message implanted in your mind – no matter what life tempts you with to get ahead in the world, to succeed in business or to get the girl, never sacrifice your morals or practice unethical means on the way to achieving your goals – or you can just leave the theatre revelling at the ridiculousness of this unashamedly unapologetic misfit of a musical. Either way, for heaven’s sake just make sure you don’t feed the plants!