Audrey II as a drag queen? Maria Aberg’s take on Little Shop of Horrors at the Open Air Theatre gives me life
“Oh, don’t you see?
Finally I’ll be
Somewhere that’s green”
It’s something of a relief when you’ve seen a version of a much-loved show that is nigh-on perfect, it really does take the pressure off those that follow. So I was able to visit a verdant Open Air Theatre to see Little Shop of Horrors – one of my all-time favourites, if not the actual one – excited by the prospect of what Maria Aberg had done, and secure in the knowledge that Derek Bond absolutely nailed it for the Royal Exchange a couple of years ago.
Chief among her innovations is giving Audrey II much more life than they’ve ever had before, by casting drag queen Vicky Vox in the role. So from twitching, voracious puppet plant (designed by Max Humphries with Tom Scutt) emerges a strutting shrub of sinful sass and it is an inspired choice. Making her a Mephistophelean figure who can prowl around the amphitheatre flips Audrey II into something as thrilling as threatening, Vox revelling in the lasciviousness of “feed me” and the most scathing raised eyebrow you ever did see.
And there’s much else to enjoy here too. Renée Lamb, Christina Modestou and Seyi Omooba are a strikingly contemporary Greek chorus (delivering Lizzi Gee’s choreography so well); Matt Willis is having an outrageously good time as the hopped-up sadistic dentist; and Tom Deering’s musical direction finds gorgeously interesting new textures in Alan Menken’s score, the interplay of dynamics as ‘Skid Row’ reaches its climax being a thing of extreme beauty.
Against all this sterling work, the take on Seymour and Audrey seems a little traditional. Jemima Rooper is delightful as a sweet and pure Audrey and if Marc Antolin channelled perhaps just a little too much of his inner Rick Moranis, I thought Billy Cullum nailed his portrayal of the role (I saw the show twice). Keeping them as cartoonish as this though means that we don’t quite delve into the emotionally rich territory of her abuse and his dubious decision-making.
But ultimately it didn’t matter because I’ve seen that production, and loved it. And now I’ve seen this one and loved it in its own way – the vivid colouring of Tom Scutt’s costumes, the dildo, Forbes Masson’s Mushnik, the big bouncing balls and much more besides. I’d recommend it but it has finished now, maybe you should make some noise about a transfer.