“Seymour sweetheart, tell me darling, what’s been going on?”
Much like the plant at the heart of its story, Little Shop of Horrors has become something of a monster success rising from its Off-Broadway beginnings to cult classic to household name, thanks in no small part to Alan Menken’s sparkling score and Howard Ashman’s sharp lyrics and witty book. A spoof of 50s sci-fi films, it follows shy young Seymour, a florist with a huge crush on his colleague Audrey, trapped in an abusive relationship with a laughing-gas-guzzling dentist. When a mysterious plant lands on his doorstep offering him the solution to his problems in return for food, things seem like they might finally start to look up for this downtrodden couple, but Seymour fails to recognise the Faustian dangers of selling his soul as the plant, Audrey II, gets hungrier and hungrier.
It is silly and fun, but the show has endured due to its gigantic heart, one cannot help but root for this couple grasping at their chance of happiness and thwarted by a renegade flesh-eating vegetable, all to the tune of Motown-inspired ditties. This production at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington, South London has taken the unusual step of pulling together two teams of actors who will alternate performances, the key difference being that the three Ronettes who also double up as Audrey II between them are guys the one night, and girls the next meaning there’s different experiences to be had here from one night to the next.
Intriguing casting decisions aside, director Paul Taylor-Mills has taken a rather unconventional approach to the material which sometimes works and at other times leaves one a little taken aback at the frenetic energy being whipped up in the small space. The three powerfully-voiced women, Chloe Akam, Laura Mansell and Olga-Marie Pratt, had great fun as the girl-group chorus of the Ronettes and also brought an interesting new vocal dimension to Audrey II, especially in ‘Suppertime’. But there’s also a tendency towards overkill, with both the singing and the acting especially once Audrey II has grown as they pace around the stage, which works against them appearing as an ensemble (they are all meant to be part of the same plant…) where perhaps some more co-ordinated movement would work better.
The tendency to overplay also hit Ted McMillan’s sadistic Dentist whose way-over-the-top turn felt just too much for the small space, close to uncomfortable rather than keeping the spoof feel at the forefront. For when this is done, the production glides smoothly with great work by an ensemble of four covering all the minor roles and the two leads: Ross Barnes as the nerdishly appealing Seymour and Ceris Hine’s fragile Audrey both doing some fine work, Hine’s rendition of ‘Somewhere That Green’ ending up tearfully slumped against the counter being one of the show’s highlights.
There is no faulting the energy on show here and one gets the feeling that a few kinks could well get ironed out – rehearsing two sets of performers can’t have been easy – though a couple of performers must learn to keep poker faces if stray watering cans and/or plant pots get loose, the intimacy of the venue means nothing escapes the audience. Menken’s score is so full of fantastic tunes that it is hard to resist and the overall feel is one of fun.