Scan your local school noticeboards and community halls and you might notice a peculiar thing: everyone’s putting on Little Shop of Horrors these days. It seems to have been accepted as a modern stage classic. Which, when you come to think about it, is a bit surprising. After all, it’s not all that easy to produce. It presents several technical problems, up to and including the fact that it centres on a large, speaking, man-eating alien plant. You don’t get that with Gilbert and Sullivan.
So why has it been embraced so widely? Well, basically because it’s great – and a large part of what makes it so great are the songs, written by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken in 1982 shortly before Disney snapped the pair up for The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. They’re gorgeous little hymns referencing the early 60s girl group sound of Motown, Phil Spector and ‘Shadow’ Morton, equal parts fond and funny. If truth be told, the original 1960 Roger Corman film that inspired the musical was loopy and entertaining, but no stone-cold classic. The musical added a whole extra dimension – and soon inspired its own film version, starring Ellen Greene and Rick Moranis, in 1986.
Here the Royal Exchange is staging the musical as its festive offering, which isn’t as odd as it might first sound. It’s a gloriously vibrant show, which is really a pretty twisted morality tale, part weird yarn, part day-glo tearjerker (besides, the ideal December evening should be spent listening to Phil Spector’s Christmas album, and this shares of lot of those genes).
Essentially it’s the story of no-hoper Seymour Krelbourn, whose career as a Skid Row florist’s assistant is going precisely nowhere, but for the fact that he’s holding a torch for his co-worker Audrey. Things change when he discovers a strange and interesting plant which he calls ‘ Audrey II’. As it grows, Audrey II generates plenty of curious visitors: both the shop, and Seymour, become successful overnight. But Seymour harbours a ghastly secret – the only thing that the plant will eat is human blood.
It wouldn’t do to say too much about where all this ends up (although those familiar only with the 1986 film, be warned: they changed the ending). The key point here is, director Derek Bond gets this just right. It’s a smart, unfussy production which deploys some neat choreography and uses the Royal Exchange’s in-the-round space very intelligently. There’s a live band, some delightful set pieces, and even a few well-judged surprises – it’s hard to do Audrey II justice on stage, but this production doesn’t disappoint. Rather than attempt some radical re-imagining of the show, it simply showcases all its strongest points: the songs and performances.
As Seymour and Audrey, Gunnar Cauthery and Kelly Price bring out all the comedy and lots of the underlying tenderness. The girl group Greek chorus, played by Ellena Vincent, Ibinabo Jack and Joelle Moses, are seriously impressive and their singing fair raises the roof off the Exchange (no mean feat, when you come to think about it). Nuno Silva handles Audrey II, as both vocal performer and puppeteer, with impressive aplomb, and as deranged dentist Orin Scrivello, as well as a number of vivid smaller roles, Ako Mitchell brims with so much half-crazed energy that you miss him when he’s gone. They may not exactly eclipse every reading of these roles you’ve seen before, if, say, you’re familiar with the film, but they’re certainly not lazy carbon copies, either: they’re skilful, spirited, well-considered performances to a man (and plant).
The show is advised as suitable for ages ten and above, so it could pass as family entertainment – but only if little Johnny can cope with human entrails being fed to plants for laughs. There is a dark edge to it, but then, so there should be. It’s part and parcel of the original story, which has been told here with tremendous energy and expertise. A tip of the Santa hat to all involved for delivering an irresistible, jet-propelled blast of strangely seasonal fun.
Review by Andy Murray
Where: Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
When: until January 31, 2015
More info: www.royalexchange.co.uk/whats-on-and-tickets/little-shop-of-horrors