Little Shop of Horrors

Book & lyrics by Howard Ashman; music by Alan Menken

Menier Chocolate Factory Productions

Opera House, Manchester, and touring

(2009)

Review by David Chadderton

This wonderful musical B-movie spoof based on a Roger Corman film by Alan Menken, now a successful composer for Disney, and the late, great Howard Ashman visits Manchester this week in the form of Menier Chocolate Factory's acclaimed production.

The unlikely story is about pathetic Skid Row florist's assistant Seymour Krelborn who has an interest in exotic plants and discovers a particularly 'strange and interesting' specimen that, it turns out, has a particular fondness for human blood. As it grows, so does public and media interest, making Seymour's boss Mr Mushnik very happy and rich, and so does its appetite, which Seymour is no longer able to satisfy just by pricking his fingers.

In a romantic sub-plot, Seymour is secretly in love with fellow employee Audrey – after whom the plant, the Audrey II, is named – but she is dating a sadistic dentist, Orin Scrivello, and often comes into work with bruises and black eyes. Then the idea occurs to Seymour that the plant's hunger and Audrey's boyfriend troubles could both be solved together.

Holding all this together is a Greek chorus of female street urchins with the 60s girl-group names Chiffon, Crystal and Ronette and song styles to match.

David Farley's set design looks stunning, with a cartoonish depiction of a very rough, dirty street and shop fronts that open up to reveal the scenes inside. His costumes for the three girls are a little bland for most of the time, and only near the end do they start to wear something like the usual 60s girl group dresses. Farley also designed the plant, which grows from something that fits in a food can to a sinister monster of vegetation that fills the shop and towers over everyone. Operating these puppets on this occasion was the amazingly physical and agile Iestyn Evans, who does an amazing job of bringing the Audrey II to life.

Damian Humbley and Clare Buckfield give very solid performances in the central roles of Seymour and Audrey, both demonstrating superb singing voices, and Sylvester McCoy is hilarious as Mushnik. Alex Ferns is less successful as Orin and several small roles; perhaps he had a throat problem on this occasion, but he growled his way tunelessly through his songs and throws himself about pulling faces in a desperate attempt to force laughs for every character, only occasionally hitting the mark. We even get a brief appearance from Mike McShane, introducing the story on a TV screen at the start.

As the voice of Audrey II, Clive Rowe really lets rip with his stunning voice. Nadia Di Mambro, Cathryn Davis and Donna Hines provide the musical narration impressively, with Davis in particular showing a very powerful voice on 'Downtown'.

The choreography – choreographer Lynne Page – and musical staging are a bit weak at times, with some numbers looking a little random and messy in their moves and others a bit sparse and simplistic. Apart from in the big 'rock out' numbers, some of the arrangements and the band sound are also a bit sparse with all the atmosphere of a backing track.

Some of the songs that didn't make it into Frank Oz's superb film of the show are noticeably weaker than most of the well-known ones and the show lacks a big finale (provided in the film by 'Mean Green Mother From Outer Space'). However there are some really great songs in the 60s aspirational 'Somewhere That's Green' (her dream of a TV with a "big, enormous twelve inch screen" is funnier now than when it was written), the romantic 'Suddenly Seymour' and the complex layers of 'Downtown' and 'Feed Me', the latter featuring one of the greatest lines from the incomparable and much-missed lyricist Howard Ashman, "The guy sure looks like plant food to me".

While this production is far from perfect, there are some big highlights that make it worth seeing, plus it's a chance to see just how good a writing partnership Ashman and Menken really were even in this, their debut work together.

To 2nd May

This production was reviewed by Philip Seager in Sheffield and by Peter Lathan in Sunderland