Little Shop of Horrors

Book & lyrics by Howard Ashman, music by Alan Menken
Octagon Theatre Bolton, New Wolsey Theatre, Theatre by the Lake & Hull Truck Theatre
Octagon Theatre

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Top: Matthew Heywood, Matthew Ganley. Bottom: Anton Stephans, Oliver Mawdsley, Andrew Whitehead, Laura Jane Matthewson, Chardai Shaw, Janna May, Zweyla Mitchell Dos Santos Credit: Pamela Raith
Laura Jane Matthewson (Audrey), Oliver Mawdsley (Seymour) Credit: Pamela Raith
Janna May (Chiffon), Chardai Shaw (Ronnette), Zweyla Mitchell Dos Santos (Crystal) Credit: Pamela Raith
Matthew Ganley (Seymour), Oliver Mawdsley (Orin) Credit: Pamela Raith
Laura Jane Matthewson (Audrey), Andrew Whitehead (Mr Mushnik) Credit: Pamela Raith
Andrew Whitehead (Mr Mushnik), Anton Stephans (customer), Laura Jane Matthewson (Audrey), Oliver Mawdsley (Seymour) Credit: Pamela Raith

On its penultimate tour around its co-producer venues, the Octagon is hosting this early collaboration between composer Alan Menken and the brilliant, late wordsmith Howard Ashman—in my view, perhaps the most perfectly crafted musical comedy of all.

Based on a 1960 comedy horror B-movie by Roger Corman, this 1982 musical, set in the unsavoury neighbourhood of Skid Row, takes place in Mr Mushnik's "God- and customer-forsaken" florist shop. Mushnik's employees are Audrey, who is being beaten up by her dentist boyfriend, Orin Scrivello DDS, and Seymour Krelborn, a nerdy and clumsy assistant who was taken in by his employer as a young orphan but who has been experimenting with new species of plant—including a "strange and interesting" plant that he discovered during a total eclipse of the sun, which generates so much publicity that this failing business suddenly starts raking in the money.

But there is a snag. Seymour discovers by accident that its favourite meal is fresh human blood, and as it gets bigger, it needs more and more of it. The plant, which Seymour names Audrey II after his fellow employee, persuades him—yes it talks, and sings—that some people deserve to die. When Seymour objects, it points out to him a likely candidate, leading to the brilliant repeatedly sung line, "The guy sure looks like plant food to me..."

The perfectly crafted words are combined with a score of '60s pop/rock that can't fail to rouse an audience. Apart from the lead characters, a trio of street kids named after '60s girl groups—Chiffon (Janna May), Crystal (Zweyla Mitchell dos Santos) and Ronnette (Chardai Shaw)—form a Greek chorus, and in this production are also an integral part of the band, adding to MD Livi Van Warmelo on keys and Migdalia van der Woven on drums, half-hidden up on the balcony.

Oliver Mawdsley and Laura Jane Matthewson are a fine pairing as Seymour and Audrey, who of course do end up together once Orin is out of the way—though not perhaps in the way you might expect. If you know the film's mainly happy ending with a sinister twist in the dying seconds, the stage show has a quite different outcome, and a few songs that didn't make it into Frank Oz's 1986 movie version. However if you are worried you will miss the brilliant song "Mean Green Mother From Outer Space", written specially for the film, don't be—Anton Stephans, the fantastic voice behind Audrey II (with Matthew Heywood as puppeteer), emerges from the plant at the end to sing it as a finale.

Andrew Whitehead plays Mushnik as someone who permanently looks on the verge of having a stroke, while Matthew Ganley is a very physical Orin, as well as a homeless person and several of the people, male and female, who offer Seymour contracts to sign near the end—with some impressive changes.

Lotte Wakeham's production, with T K Hay's colourful design, lit by Nic Farman, is full of life and energy. There are issues with the sound, as though the system in a theatre that normally presents plays is struggling to cope with this many instruments and voices going through it at once, and some of the chorus numbers are rather muddy and indistinct—the "Mean Green Mother finale suffering the most, but the audience, mostly on their feet, didn't seem to care at this point.

But overall, this is a great show and this production will send any audience out smiling and singing—although perhaps it was bad timing to see it the day before I had a dentist appointment.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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