Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Review: 'Little Shop of Horrors' at the New Wimbledon Theatre, 23rd August 2016

There really should be more musicals about giant flesh-eating plants. Little Shop of Horrors (in both its cinematic and stage guises) has always been a favourite of mine, the show neatly bypassing my usual problems with musicals (sappy, sentimental, nauseatingly crowd-pleasing). In contrast, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's comedy musical has a healthy disregard for its characters, a wickedly dark sense of humour that tiptoes the boundaries of taste and, most importantly, is about a nice man who feeds corpses to a giant flesh-eating plant.

Said plant is 'Audrey II', named after Audrey (Stephanie Clift), the secret love of awkward, uberniceguy Seymour (Sam Lupton). Audrey and Seymour work together at failing florist s 'Mushnik's', managed by the eponymous Mr Mushnik (Paul Kissaun), who inches every closer to bankruptcy each day. 

The three scratch out an existence in urban everynightmare 'Skid Row', "Where the folks are broke", "Where your life's a joke", "Where the hop-heads flop in the snow". The production effectively underlines the squalor by populating the neighbourgood with sex pests, chain-smoking pregnant women and scowling bums leering from every shop doorway. On top of that, Audrey is trapped in an abusive relationship with sadistic dentist Orin (Rhydian), who leaves her arm in a sling, gives her a couple of black eyes and generally treats her like garbage.

Faced with all this, is it any surprise that the desperate Seymour sees Audrey II as his ticket out of hell? And anyway, there's plenty of scumbag candidates for plant food out there on the mean streets...

Menken and Ashman's book runs on a Motown engine; provided both by Audrey II and the chorus trio that leads us through the story in the Prologue, Skid Row (Down town), Da-doo and the later Ya Never Know and Don't Feed the Plants. Mixed in are a couple of justifiably famous ballads (Suddenly Seymour and Somewhere That's Green) and a smattering of rock. My personal fave is Grow For Me, a gently lolloping number with some intensely clever rhymes about horticulture. If you're unfamiliar with Little Shop, you'll find obvious echoes of Menken and Ashman's future work on Disney's The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.

The cast delivers all this with impressive precision and personality. The bedrock of the night is the excellent chorus (Sasha LaToya, Vanessa Fisher and Cassie Clare), who keep things bouncing along while bringing the on-stage city to life. The highlights are Sam Lupton and Stephanie Clift. Lupton does a straight-up fantastic job in his two major songs, stuffing them with personality and character right up to bursting point.

But the undisputed best thing of the night is Clift's Audrey, particularly her Somewhere That's Green. You could hear a pin-drop in the theatre as she works through this equally sad and funny ode to dull domesticity. Hearing Audrey wax lyrical about going to bed early, eating TV dinners and her chain link fence - her heart soaring at the idea of ultimate consumer conformity - is a tiny bit breathtaking. She deserves every atom of the riotous applause she receives.

Similarly, the carnivorous plant that powers the story is effectively brought to life by via puppetry and Neil Nicholas' vocal stylings. By the closing scenes I felt for Josh Wilmot, trapped inside the puppet in what must be sweltering heat. There's a real air of sinisterness in the quiet way it's dinosauric head follows Seymour around the set, and the vicious *snaps* when it crunches through bone.

The only real trip-up is the mononymous Rhydian, not only playing the sadistic dentist, but repeatedly popping up in cameo roles. Perhaps this is a "Who are the Beatles?" kind of moment, but I've never heard of this guy (the ripple of applause he got when he appeared on stage had me scurrying to my programme to find out who the hell he was). Apparently he's famous from X-Factor, which in retrospect explains why he's on the front of the programme.

It's not that he's bad per se, but he seems a bit self-satisfied while not being half as fun (or as funny) as Lupton and Clift. It's perhaps difficult to accuse someone of over-egging the part of a nitrous huffing dental super-sadist, but Rhydian comes perilously close (and really suffers in comparison with Steve Martin's iconic performance in the movie). I get the commercial reasoning for shoehorning him into so many scenes, but the focus really should be on Seymour, Audrey and Audrey II, not on Rhydian's peripheral characters.

That aside, this is a great production of a seriously great show. Ashman and Menken gift the show its vigorously pumping black heart; somehow managing to make a domestic violence subplot hilarious without crossing over into bad taste, as well as forcing us to love characters before doing downright horrible things to them. Much like it's botanical supervillain, Little Shop of Horrors is a show with teeth.


Little Shop of Horrors is at The New Wimbledon Theatre until 27th August, then on tour. Tickets here.

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