W.C. Fields is reputed to have warned actors not to share scenes with children or animals.
But no one warned them not to share the stage with Audrey II, the ever- growing plant that makes Little Shop of Horrors so horrific. This production of the long running, cult Off-Broadway musical, the first to hit London in over twenty years, is reportedly, the most expensive musical Menier Chocolate Factory has ever staged and the one hundred thousand pound series of 'plants' showing Audrey II at various stages of growth created by ARTEM Ltd. is the main reason.
Seymour spends his days in sameness in down at heel Mushnik's Flower Shop on Skid Row, a.k.a. the Bowery in New York City. His boss mourns their lack of customers, but does nothing to boost the sagging business. Stereotypically dumb blonde Audrey clocks in at 2pm for her 9 to 5 job. Just as Mr. Mushnik is about to throw in the towel, in comes shy, retiring Seymour with a strange, exotic plant he has cultivated from a seedling, allegedly given to him during a total eclipse by a mysterious Chinese horticulturalist. If the little plant, which Seymour names after Audrey, the woman of his dreams, could grow big and strong, he could put it in the front window to lure customers into the shop. But he doesn't realize it's carnivorous.
The show opens with a bang as the band launches into the title number with a trio of pony-tailed singers. Chiffon (Katie Kerr), Crystal (Melitsa Nicola) and Ronette (Jenny Fitzpatrick) are all in fine voice and their sixties, girl-group harmonies set a cherry, nostalgic tone for the opening scenes. Television star Sheridan Smith handles her vocals as Audrey very well, but her Betty Boopesque accent tends to grate. Paul Keating makes an agile, energetic Seymour who seems only too willing to morph into the kind of guy Audrey would love to take home to her mother, 'if she had one.' Barry James, who himself played Seymour in the 1983 West End production of Little Shop…which ran for two years, employs his mercurial delivery to excellent effect as Seymour's crotchety boss Mr. Mushnik. Jasper Britton is lethally funny as sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello and 'everyone else,' filling in, during one scene, as one oddball after another, in order to indicate the sort of hangers-on Seymour could fall pray to if he hit the big time. Actor Mike Mc Shane who also appears briefly as a Bowery wino in the opening scene supplies the booming, insistent voice of ever-famished venus-fly trap from hell Audrey II. Puppeteer Andy Heath skillfully mans the controls of the mean green eating machine, enabling it to lip synch in time to Mc Shane's voice as he bellows and sings as well as when it grinds its teeth, chews and smacks its rubbery lips.
The catchy, mixed bag musical score by Alan Menken with lyrics by Howard Ashman generates moments of ironic humour as well as wistful longing, and the band snaps to it accordingly, morphing from sizzling to subtle in the blink of an eye. Ingeniously designed, swiftly moving sets by David Farley allow for the action to seamlessly switch between Mushnik's Flower Shop and the diabolical dentist's office, as well as providing curbstone crooning space for the aforementioned harmonic trio and star singing spots for Smith and fellow cast members. Choreography by Lynn Page is enjoyably imaginative when space allows and her input in regard to the actors' movements around the giant plant in their limited performance space would have proved invaluable. Broad direction by Matthew White makes for characters that are more like caricatures, which is apt for Ashman's 1950s Sci-Fi spoof world, though the pain-loving dentist's final, decidedly nasty scene fell rather flat and could do with some pruning.
Little Shop of Horrors makes for a fun night out, though Audrey II (Audrey Junior in Roger Corman's 1960 film version) is the definitive scene-stealer. This good-natured, kitschy production could well develop into yet another, full-blown West End musical for Menier Chocolate Factory. By the time Audrey II reached full maturity, with its fronds filling the already too small performance space and its green, latex tendrils stretching out over the audience, it was clear the show could only benefit from a transplant into a larger venue.