Little Shop of Horrors
Book and lyrics by Howard Ashman
Music by Alan Menken
Directed by Gareth Machin
Designer: James Button
Saturday 2nd May 2015, 14.15 matinee
Ben Stott as Seymour
Francis McNamee as Audrey
Simeon Truby as Mr Mushnik, flower shop owner
Jez Unwin as Orin, the dentist, and various agents
Gbemisola Ikumelo as Crystal
Karis Jack as Chiffon
Carol Stennett as Ronette
Gareth Cassidy as “Swing” i.e. various parts
Francis Mayli McCann as “Swing”
Leon Craig as Voice of Audrey II (the plant)
Andrew London as puppeteer of Audrey II
Friends have said to me, ‘Why do you go to the effort of reviewing so many plays and films at such length?” Little Shop of Horrors is an example of why I do. This is the third time for the stage musical. Add in the original Roger Corman horror film and the 1986 musical film. The last major stage version was in 2007 in Britain and we took a Rumanian friend to see it. We were overwhelmed by the brilliance of the production. She couldn’t believe that something this good was in such a small and outwardly unprepossessing venue. I remembered the singing trio, I remembered that Alistair McGowan was the dentist, and was absolutely made for the three agents appearing in rapid order to sign up Seymour. I even remembered that Mike McShane was the voice of Audrey, excellent, though not rivalling the great Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops in the film. But until I Googled, I’d forgotten that Audrey had been played by Sheridan Smith, and that Seymour had been played by Paul Keating. I guess Sheridan Smith wasn’t well-known then, but Sheridan Smith and Paul Keating both had Olivier Award nominations for that one. If I had reviewed it, I would have remembered far better.
It’s impossible to compare at this distance in time. All I can say is that both the 2007 and the 2015 productions were flat out, 100% enjoyable takes on this musical of the highest standard. Little Shop of Horrors comes from Ashman & Menken’s Disney period, scoring Aladdin, Beauty & The Beast and The Little Mermaid. I challenge anyone to leave a production without “Suddenly Seymour …” ringing in their head.
In Friday’s Daily Mail (1 May 2015) Quentin Letts has an article on British successes on Broadway. He mentions regional centres of excellence in theatre and notes Birmingham, Bath, Leeds and Northampton. Weird. My list would have started with Chichester, and included Salisbury, and Brighton. Salisbury Playhouse, in spite of the little dig in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem (the worst pantomime I ever saw) is indeed a regional centre of excellence as a producing theatre. It also seems to be on a roll. Separate Tables was one of my ten best productions of 2014, and Gareth Machin has now produced a Little Shop of Horrors that should be touring the country. It is going to Colchester next. After our annual intensive London theatre week of six productions in six days, this was the seventh in ten days. It stands comfortably with the best London productions in quality, cast and execution, and in the list of seven, if I had to order them, would not only be third, but one of three “5 star” productions along with Rules For Living and The Merchant of Venice.
While avoiding head-to-head comparisons, Salisbury gets a clear win on set. The set is three storeys tall, with two floors of windows towering over the flower shop. There’s a balcony on the middle floor. The five piece band are tucked away in that level … you can just see their music reading lights through the black gauze covering the window, and I could place the drums spatially anyway. The best thing is that instead of a curtain covering the inner flower shop set, they have what looks like a rusting graffiti covered, barbed wire-topped corrugated iron wall, that is lifted on and off. The dentist’s chair rises from below. All three girls in the group can appear from below, heads showing only, at the front. The set is so detailed, and comparable to the RSC set for Death of A Salesman, that it’s a great shame it just gets the Salisbury and Colchester runs. Hopefully it can be stored safely for a revival!
From memory, and Googling, I recall the singing in 2007 as superb, just as it was here, but the band sound as muddy. Another Salisbury win, because the band sound was clear, every instrument delineated, punchy and undistorted. The head mics on the actor-singers have now dropped to virtually invisible … I think Seymour’s was what looked like a logo on one side of his spectacles.
Ben Stott as Seymour
In casting, I think they were inspired by the film. Ben Stott’s Seymour is even slighter and smaller than Rick Moranis, and a tall Audrey (Francis McNamee) is the perfect visual contrast. These are major solo singing roles. The three girls, Crystal, Ronette and Chiffon (I just love those names), are chosen to look physically contrasting … one tall, one short, one heavier. They can do the girl group sound so well that I realized that given the technology changes, it is highly unlikely that the original Crystals, Ronettes or Chiffons sounded that good on a 60s stage, nor would their band have sounded so dynamic and punchy. Orin the dentist has to do the trio of agents trying to sign Seymour with a total costume change every few seconds. Jez Unwin looks and sounds the part. I have a memory (false? Dunno) that the 2007 production brought the motorcycle on stage for Orin. So one up for 2007 if they did. Simeon Truby is Mr Mushnik, again channeling the film, I thought. Full marks to everyone in the cast.
Francis McNamee as Audrey
Francis McNamee featured in my “Best Shakespeare of 20014” list as Maria in Love’s Labours Lost and Ursula in Love’s Labours Won as well as Cassandra in Bath’s Punishment Without Revenge. Stepping in a part Sheridan Smith played is unenviable, but she plays Audrey gawkier, less sexy, but equally funny. Ben Stott is physically designed to be Seymour in height and girth, and both sing their hearts out. Incidentally, this was a matinee and lots of people had kids, and there was absolutely no evidence of taking a matinee quietly. Full throttle from all.
Jez Unwin as Orin
Audrey II is the plant, and the animators and voice deservedly come out to take bows. I fancy the plant got bigger and higher in 2007, but there was a great addition at the end in Salisbury which I’ll reserve (no plot spoiler). On plot, I see the 1986 film was reissued in 2012 with the original ending restored. That is the same ending as the stage musical (which dates from 1983). I’m going to get a DVD … I have the earlier DVD. In 1986, Ashman & Menken had to film and add a “happy ending” after unfavorable previews in the USA. That disconcerted the kids with us slightly as they had seen the film, and were not expecting the demise of Audrey and Seymour. But that’s the intended and orginal ending. And they loved it.
First rate. Excellent articles on the animation of the puppet and set design, and on the production history from the Corman cheapo horror film through to the stage musical to the movie.
I say it everytime. Compared to West End Theatres, a visit to Salisbury or Chichester feels airy, spacious. You can even walk along the rows without people having to stand … they’re easily wide enough. Plentiful loos. Ice creams cost £2.25 for the brand we paid £3.50 or £4 for in London.