“That thing went bang, kaboom. And he’s havin’ some fun now”
There are shows I love and then there are shows I LOVE and Little Shop of Horrors most definitely falls into that latter category. I fell for its undeniable charms when I was 11 or 12 I think, when my mum was involved in her school production of it, letting me wander backstage, and the MD, who was also my piano teacher, snuck out a copy of Alan Menken’s most tuneful of scores to enliven my lessons for a good few weeks. Combined with the cult classic that is the movie version, I was utterly hooked and have remained so ever since. So I was most delighted to see the Royal Exchange announcing it as their festive fare and with the ever-exciting Derek Bond directing, who in recent years has delivered a bewitching As You Like It, the hugely under-rated Many Moons and Lost in Yonkers, through which I cried pretty much non-stop.
The gloriously rich vocal harmonies of Ibinabo Jack, Ellena Vincent and Joelle Moses as Chiffon, Crystal and Ronnette, the girl-group Greek chorus who doo-wop their premonitions of doom, are an ever-present and magnificent hook into the action and never more so than in the stellar one-two that opens the show. ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ is a stone-cold classic theme tune with its shang-a-langs and throaty comma comma commas but ‘Skid Row’ – one of my all-time favourite songs from a musical, I should add – blooms into resplendent life, benefitting from a slightly slowed tempo and some sympatico choreography to really nail the air of quiet desperation that lies at the song’s heart as we’re introduced to this classic “boy-meets-girl-feeds-plant-her-boyfriend-gets-famous-kills-boss-sacrifices-girl-and-dies” story. Oh yeah, spoiler alert 😉
MD Tim Jackson (also responsible for the moves) has really played a blinder here, his five-strong band delivering interesting arrangements throughout which capture the interest of both those familiar with the score and newcomers too. And James Perkins’ set design meets the needs of the in-the-round space perfectly, his uncluttered aesthetic allowing the focus to fall squarely on Toby Olié’s puppetry which brings Audrey II to increasingly dramatic life. Voiced and manipulated by Nuno Silva, and then later aided by James Charlton and CJ Johnson (all refugees from the wonder that was The Light Princess), it is an evocative and exhilarating rendering that is hypnotically compelling and like all great divas, knows just how to work an exit.
Elsewhere, director Bond pitches it just right across the board. The unsavoury nature of Audrey’s relationship with abusive dentist Orin Scrivello isn’t shirked, and acknowledged by the verbal dressing-down he gets from the girls, but it is equally isn’t too graphic – this is the Royal Exchange’s family show after all – and Ako Mitchell captures an ideal level of gleeful sadism. He’s also helped by his doubling of a whole suite of supporting characters, each and every one of whom is a minor comic success (his interested customer probably won for me).
And there’s real pathos in this version of Seymour and Audrey. Gunnar Cauthery is less of an outright schmuck and so brims with a barely disguised charm that is warm-hearted even as he makes his Faustian pact to feed Audrey II with what she wants the most. And as Audrey the first, Kelly Price strips back almost all of the caricature to find something really touching about this woman – taken this seriously, ‘Somewhere That’s Green’ emerges as a tear-jerking cri de coeur, ‘Suddenly Seymour’ is a moment of genuine emotional revelation. And that is what this whole production was for me, the perfect reminder of why I love this show so much and you can’t ask for much more than that.