I have a confession to make: I have never seen Little Shop Of Horrors before. I realise that’s a statement up there, in some circles, with “I’ve never seen Star Wars” or “I don’t eat chocolate”, but it’s true. Despite being one of the most revived productions since its 1982 premiere, and the subject of a fondly remembered film featuring a famously madcap Steve Martin cameo (and I was a MASSIVE Steve Martin fan, at least up until Father Of The Bride), it’s somehow slipped under my radar.
You could tell the fans from the newcomers in the audience – the ones eagerly singing along with every line, squealing with delight as soon as a sadistic dentist appeared onstage, the anticipation on the faces as a huge plant grows ever bigger; then there’s the other half of the audience, me included, sitting there with a bemused but delighted ‘who on earth wrote this, and can I have some of what they’re on?’ look on their face.
Derek Bond’s version works well for both crowds. For those who have seen the show before, there’s added intrigue: the Royal Exchange is famously an in-the-round space; could Bond really pull off the puppetry required to recreate Audrey II in such a venue? He does that and more; this, I would imagine, is a more intimate Little Shop Of Horrors than one might have previously seen, which brings a new dimension to the production.
To fully enjoy the show you need to embrace the ridiculous and have a taste for the macabre – this is, after all, a play in which a plant feeds on human blood and features a set-piece in which dentist manages to accidentally overdose on laughing gas.
The beauty of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s work is in the richness of the absurd humour and their glorious 1950s influenced soundtrack, performed here by ‘The Shopettes’ (played by Ellena Vincent, Ibinabo Jack and Joelle Moses), who are onstage for the majority of the running time, acting as chorus, while adding some musical meat to numbers like Dentist! and Ya Never Know. Gunnar Cauthery captures Seymour’s nice-guy naivety as he struggles to come to terms with his new-found Faustian fame as his plant becomes ever more notorious. Kelly Price, who’s been a cast highlight in many a Royal Exchange production over the last couple of years, is an excellently dizzy and dotty Audrey, with a vulnerability which means you’re always rooting for her relationship with Seymour, despite the silliness of their situation. Both Price and Cauthery have decent voices too, with the former’s heartfelt renditions of Suddenly Seymour and Somewhere That’s Green highlights of the show.
The character of dentist Orin Scrivello, played by both Jack Nicholson and Steve Martin on screen, is here played by Ako Mitchell, a bundle of energy, seizing on his role with relish and belting out a wonderfully over-the-top version of his signature tune Dentist. It’s a relatively brief cameo, but it’s a memorable one.
All of them are a little eclipsed by Audrey II, the huge, man-eating plant that keeps growing and growing. As brought to life by Nuno Silva, it’s a glorious thing, and it’s a tribute to his talent (and that of his colleagues James Charlton and CJ Johnson who help out during the second half) that you hardly notice his presence, despite the fact he’s in clear view of the audience throughout. He becomes one with the plant, a magical piece of design by Toby OliÃ©, as it grows from a few inches in height to a massive beast, spreading its tendrils all over the audience. It’s here that the Royal Exchange’s space really comes into its own, the plant threatening to colonise not just the stage but the whole venue.