Little Shop Of Horrors
Music by Alan Menken, book and lyrics by Howard Ashman
Assembled Junk Productions
Kings Arms, Salford
James Baker, the newly appointed artistic director of the theatre space at the Kings in Salford, formerly known as Studio Salford, has followed up an ambitious but acclaimed production of the musical Spring Awakening with an equally ambitious production of an earlier rock / pop musical.
With a reported budget in five figures, a cast of ten including understudies (yes, understudies on the fringe!) and a live 5-piece band in a space with only 36 audience seats, it is clear that Baker is out to make an impression.
This early off-Broadway hit, based on a Roger Corman shocker starring an unknown Jack Nicholson, from the pair who went on to revolutionise the scores of Disney films before Ashman's untimely death is about an awkward employee of a failing flower shop on Skid Row who discovers a "strange and interesting" new plant that makes both his and his employer's fortune.
Unfortunately, the plant only survives on a diet of human blood, and, as it grows bigger, so does its appetite. This production sticks with the original ending, so don't expect the more upbeat film conclusion (although it did result in the wonderful "Mean Green Mother" song which isn't in the show).
Menken's wonderful pop / rock score with strong influences of soul and Motown (the three female urchins providing the backing vocals are called Ronette, Chiffon and Crystal) together with Ashman's brilliantly witty lyrics and book make for a very entertaining show that still has great popular appeal.
Baker has configured the space in traverse (with the audience on two opposing sides), but not much of it is staged as a traverse production, so for most of the production the spectators are twisting round to look at one end or the other where most scenes are staged. Some scenes seem wedged into a corner instead of being given space to move and breathe.
Mushnik's Florists looks great with its grey walls and matching grey flowers until it wakes up with an explosion of colourful blooms when the shop finally begins to prosper. But the set highlight is undoutedly the superb plant, the "Audrey II", which comes in four versions as it grows from a small Venus Fly Trap-type object to a monster able to swallow a man whole. This is clearly where a large part of the budget went, and it's worth it.
The performers are almost all recent graduates and, while they are clearly inexperienced performers, they all do a decent job. Francesca Swarbrick, Christina Meehan and Paida Noel have superb voices and moves to hold everything together as the trio of backing singers. Laura Harrison is great as Audrey without falling into the trap of copying Ellen Greene's original performance, with Duncan Birt doing a pretty decent job of Seymour opposite her. The one older member of the cast is Richard Sails who is convincing as Muchnik.
I wasn't as keen on David Zachary's portrayal of sadistic dentist Orin as it came across as self-conscious attempts at funny actions rather than the humour coming through the character, but he sounds superb as the voice of Audrey II. The rest of the cast are Oliver Yank, Jack Bradley and Rebecca Lake.
Under the direction of Tom Chester, the five-piece band sounds great, although a little muffled from being behind a fake brick wall. In fact the sound balance still needs some work with the vocals rather tinny and often drowned out by the band, especially Audrey II whose voice comes entirely through the speakers, which sometimes makes the lyrics difficult to understand. However to mic up a cast of ten with a live band is quite a feat in a room of that size.
The pace is good, the acting is fine and the singing is excellent. I can't see that this show can recover its budget from a three-week run and fewer than 40 seats, but if Baker's intention is to enter his new post at the Kings with a bang and show what is possible with this space, he's certainly achieved that.
It's a great show with bags of humour, some great pop songs you'll certainly go out singing (and a few less memorable ones) and a man-eating plant. What more could you want in a Christmas show?
Reviewer: David Chadderton