Little Shop of Horrors, review: Hammy parody is humorous alternative Christmas show

Royal Exchange, Manchester

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The audiences at the test showings for the movie Little Shop of Horrors shrieked with delight throughout the screening – until the end when (semi-spoiler alert) all the musical’s main characters were eaten by a literally blood-thirsty alien from outer space masquerading as an exotic plant.

At that point a chilled silence settled over the movie theatre. The producers tried a second showing the following night. Same reaction. So (second semi-spoiler alert) they had the director Frank Oz, of Muppet fame, re-film it with a happy ending.

The theatre gets round that problem by having everyone the plant has eaten – and everyone it hasn’t (spoiler confusion) – come out on the stage for the final number warning mankind of what action to take when faced with the threat of alien invasion in botanic form: “Don’t Feed The Plants.”

It’s a solution Brecht would have been proud of – ramming home the show’s bizarre conclusion whilst reminding everyone that no-one was really harmed in the making of his head-scratching parable. Most importantly it gives a joyous feelgood ending to a show which the Royal Exchange has chosen as its gusty black-humour Christmas show for adults of all ages - of whom, of course, older children are the most streetwise in our topsy-turvey times. (The show may be too scary for youngsters).

The musical, which gives new meaning to the warning “Heavy Plant Crossing, is a glorious cartoon as layered with irony and referential fun as a mille-feuille. The story comes from a 1930s sci-fi short-story; the music from a period and genre which spans Fifties doo-wop rock and roll, Elvis and early Motown; the New York humour is Runyon-lite; and the characterisation is nicely-parodied hammy horror. Together the book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken are an inflammable combination.

Director Derek Bond has assembled a good cast who perform with zest rather than finesse. Gunnar Cauthery finely judges Seymour, the hapless florist who is the show’s unheroic Faust to the botanic Mephistopheles. His start to the love ballad “Suddenly Seymour” is genuinely touching. And Kelly Price, after an uncertain start, deftly captures the thinness of Audrey’s suburban plastic-wrapped aspiration in “Somewhere That’s Green”. Sevan Stephan is assured as the opportunistic Mr Mushnik though Ako Mitchell lacks the precision as the sadistic dentist which he achieves in his smaller cameos.

Puppetry designer Toby Olie has come up with an effective monstrous Audrey II as the diabolic plant. Its sinuously jointed tendrils are operated by three puppeteers with comic conviction and Nuno Silva, chief puppeteer, has an impressive vocal range as the plant’s voice, a part made famous in the movie by Levi Stubbs, lead singer of the Four Tops.

The moral of this post-modern Faustus is that our world, so in thrall to materialist fripperies, has lost its soul and it is too late to do anything about it. Not a very Christmassy message. But the vigour, warmth and humour of this romp of a panto for our disjointed times happily gives the lie to that.