The potted plant that materialises in Mr Mushnik's Skid Row flower shop secretly feeds on human flesh. What is fabulous about the rock'n'roll, mock-Gothic musical Little Shop of Horrors is that it's painlessly entertaining even as the story gains darker meanings due to the said carnivorous succulent being so richly symbolic.
In Matthew White's highly enjoyable production, the shop assistant, Paul Keating's Seymour, is a sort of comical 1950s Faust, a sweet nerd tinkering with sci-fi horticulture as well as fancying the cashier, Audrey (Sheridan Smith). The weird seedling that he puts in the window, drawing crowds, soon starts swelling to monstrous proportions (courtesy of top-calibre latex puppetry by Artem Limited). Named Audrey II, the vampiric vegetation looks menacingly like a Venus fly-trap crossed with a pitcher plant, but (for adult spectators at least) it more suggestively evokes a vagina dentate atop a preposterously magnified phallus.
Horribly funny, it quivers with excitement when it sniffs blood. Its demanding "Feed me" voice is supplied by Mike McShane - high-pitched at first like a woman or nightmarish baby then deepening until it sounds more akin to a groovy hustler or Seymour's own alter ego, the incarnation of his suppressed predatory fantasies. Beyond this, as Seymour gets a taste for alluring fame and fortune, the rampant plant becomes a metaphor for all-consuming greed, even for the whole American dream going awry.
White's finale is anticlimactic, without any strong directorial interpretation of what the pullulating plant might ultimately signify - unlike Christopher Luscombe's 2002 revival where the giant maw was topped by a US army helmet, so the chorus "Don't feed the plants" twisted into an anti-war anthem. Alan Menken's score begs for a voice that goes even deeper than McShane's, and the live band is a little muffled by the set's grungy alley walls. Yet David Farley's design is otherwise deftly compact, the Motown-style tunes are irresistible and Howard Ashman's lyrics are droll - "I know Seymour's the greatest/But I'm dating a semi-sadist" being one of my favourite rhyming couplets.
Jasper Britton as the sado-dentist could switch more sharply between mad giggling and asphyxiating panic as he overdoses on nitrous oxide, but Smith's Audrey is a hilarious and lovable bimbo who captures the yearning poignancy in her cod-pastoral number, "Somewhere that's green". Choreographed by Lynne Page, the jiving tramps and girls on the street are a startlingly sinister chorus too, freezing like gargoyles or sliding from a slow dance into strangleholds. The buzzing Menier, which produced Sunday in the Park with George, once again has a hit on its hands.
Spice Drum Beat: Ghoema is a piece of musical theatre about the folk-songs and colonial history of South Africa, put together by the popular Cape Town composer Taliep Petersen and writer-director David Kramer - the duo previously celebrated for Kat and the Kings. This show is a kind of ethnological music lesson. Five chirpy actor-singers tell the story of how the Cape, as a stop-off point for spice traders, became home to many peoples including Portuguese and Dutch settlers and slaves shipped in from Madagascar, India, Indonesia and elsewhere. Though it didn't turn into an egalitarian Utopia, the resultant Creole society produced superbly syncretic music including shanties, Ghoemaliedjies or picnic songs (with coded satirical digs at the ruling classes) and Karienkel (intoning with Arabic-sounding ululations).
The on-stage veteran musicians (playing drums, accordion, banjo and guitars) are splendid, the singing is vibrant, and I wanted to learn and hear more. However, I also hankered for authenticity checks regarding some the arrangements, wondering if Petersen wasn't making an 18th-century ballad sound just too darned like Dolly Parton.
Far more uncomfortably, the history lesson is delivered with such over-eager jolly clowning that it comes over like a tourist promo or a TIE production for primary schools. I doubt if this will transfer to the West End, as Kat and the Kings did, but the greater tragedy is that Petersen - after celebrating international harmonies - returned from the Tricycle's European premiere to be murdered, just days later, by intruders at his Cape Town home: a shockingly brutal and sad end, although his songs live on.
Composer Stu Barker is a kindred spirit too. His wonderful eclectic scores - ranging from gypsy to jazz numbers - are always a joy in productions by the physical theatre troupe, Kneehigh. Director Emma Rice's latest take on a folktale, Rapunzel, is snugly staged on raised wooden palettes encircled by the audience (adults and children) who sit on cloth bales. The vaudeville clowning and the use of a trapeze do not take off brilliantly at first. Nonetheless, the aerial duet "I wanna pingaling with you" - sung by Edith Tankus's dreadlocked Rapunzel and her youthful amour - gets swinging, beautifully combining the comical and the sultry.
The story, with many quirky twists, is a potent rite-of-passage drama about the healing and destructive power of love, possessive parents, jealous siblings and surviving hardships. Mike Shepherd as the white-going-on-wicked witch, Mother Gothel, swishes around in splendid Japanese dressing-gowns and a snowy wig like a towering cloud. Moreover, his rumbustious acting is combined with delicate puppetry, including butterflies dancing on wires and a straw baby that seems to kick its tiny limbs all on its own, actually given life by cast members gliding around on trolleys under the stage. Enchanting moments.
'Little Shop of Horrors (020 7907 7060) to 25 February; 'Spice Drum Beat: Ghoema' (020 7328 1000) to 27 January; 'Rapunzel' (020 7223 2223) to 14 JanuaryReuse content