Even (or especially) if you think you know the material backwards, you’d be mad to miss this uplifting revival of Little Shop of Horrors, directed by Maria Aberg. The production looks and sounds terrific and offers a genuinely bracing new vision of this piece. Inspired by a low-budget Sixties B-movie, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s tongue-in-cheek 1982 musical tells the Faustian story of a hapless Skid Row florist who wins love, fame and fortune when he cultivates a rampantly bloodthirsty plant and panders to its insatiable appetite for human flesh. It’s like a witty botanical variant of the Rocky Horror Show but it has never soared, as it does here, into what looks like mad cross between The Day of the Triffids and RuPaul’s Drag Race.
The man-eating extraterrestrial plant – named Audrey II after the co-worker whom Seymour, the sweet-natured florist, pines for – is usually evoked by means of outsize puppetry and an offstage voice (think of the comically grotesque blend of Venus flytrap and avocado in Frank Oz’s 1986 movie version). Here, though, when it grows to the point where it starts to hanker after world domination, this outlandish creature is played by the American drag queen Vicky Vox. It’s an inspired piece of casting. Prowling around in fishnets and skin-tight green spandex and growling out orders to “Feed me!” from glitter-encrusted lips, Vox is in complete, voluptuous command – a Mephistopheles who effortlessly exudes a filthy diva-style sense of danger.
Tom Scutt’s impressive design has a monochrome, graphic-book feel in its depiction of crumbling tower blocks, surrounded by rubble, with the down-and-out denizens of Skid Row pushing round model versions of these tenement buildings in shopping trolleys. The set is surmounted by a shattered drive-in cinema marquee, a nod both to the destitution of the neighbourhood and to this musical’s B-movie origins. Renee Lamb, Christina Modestou and Seyi Omooba are in terrific voice and have sass and attitude to burn as the doo-wopping trio of street urchins who are the show’s Greek chorus.
Nicely balancing guileless sweetness and knowing spoof, Marc Antolin and Jemima Rooper are very fine as Seymour and Audrey I. The production does not attempt to cloak the former’s activities in euphemism. Seymour vomits into the audience during the scene in which he feeds his first corpse to the plant. In Aberg’s grotesquely funny staging, he does so by chucking bleeding bits of body through all the windows and apertures of the miniaturised florist’s shop which looks to have been entirely monopolised by the monster’s ravening appetite.
Rooper brings moments of heart-rending dignity to the ditsy Audrey I. I don’t think that I have heard “Somewhere That’s Green” – that paean to the American dream of suburban paradise “There’s plastic on the furniture/ To keep it neat and clean” – sung with such simplicity and yearning. The musical is unfortunately lumbered with a domestic violence subplot that is queasily half-jokey in intent. Rooper does a very good job countering the cartoon aspects of this by giving you a more detailed picture than usual of the woman who, under the surface, is struggling with low self-esteem. She’s all the more impressive because, to mind, Matt Willis (of Busted fame) is neither funny nor frightening enough as the character’s unhinged dentist boyfriend. Willis’s maniacal laugh becomes increasingly predictable. There are moments of genuine alarm in the sadist-slapstick of the brilliant Steve Martin in the movie version. Pity that there aren’t any here.
The production brilliantly keeps track of the plant’s megalomania, with tendrils sprouting all over the set and her victims returning in a demented pageant that looks like a harvest festival as Audrey II might have designed it. I won’t give away the surprise finale except to reveal that it’s no anticlimax. Have I said you should go?
To 22 September (openairtheatre.com)
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