Filmed in two days and one night, Roger Corman’s 1960 B-movie The Little Shop of Horrors made inventive use of comedy, horror, and science-fiction elements in a pastiche which has since gained a cult following. Premiering in 1982, Little Shop of Horrors – Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s perennial musical based on Corman’s film – is a mainstay of the amateur and community musical circuit, as well as spawning the 1986 film-musical directed by Frank Oz. Now, it receives a thrilling twenty-first century revival the hands of Dean Bryant and the team that previously brought Sweet Charity to life in
in 2014. Sydney
Following a War of the Worlds-esque prologue, Little Shop of Horrors tells the story of Seymour Krelborn, a florist’s assistant on Skid Row, and his dreams of a better lot in life. When he discovers a strange and interesting plant during a total eclipse of the sun, he buys it (for $1.95) and it soon becomes the talk of the town. But as the plant, nicknamed Audrey II, grows and grows, so too does its insatiable appetite, and
quickly runs away from him, putting the whole planet in danger. Seymour
Staged at the intimate Hayes Theatre, this production does not let the smallness of the theatre restrict its ambition. Owen Phillips’ set is initially all monochrome and off-kilter, odd-angles, and many shades of grey, but eventually explodes into lurid saturated colour once Audrey II’s ambition takes hold. Complemented by Tim Chappel’s costumes, likewise initially in monochrome then saturated colour, the production is perhaps designed as a reflection of the musical’s origins in Corman’s black-and-white film. Chappel – perhaps more well-known for his work on Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in both its film and stage incarnations – has the enviable ability to take the most excellent flights of fancy and turn them into wearable creations which work dramatically and thematically; there is a tangible sense of fun and enjoyment in this production, and it’s hard not to applaud at certain reveals, especially so far as Audrey II is concerned. Ross Graham’s lighting is equally colourful and variegated, while Jeremy Silver’s sound design does not intrude into the band’s sound but serves to highlight the slightly comic-book feel of the production, and grounds it within a world that is recognisable but necessarily exaggerated off of our own, as do the video projections which pepper the action.
For many people, Audrey II is the star of the show, and Bryant’s creation – created and constructed by Erth Visual and Physical Inc. – does not disappoint. Straying away from the stereotypical Audrey II as seen on Broadway and in the 1986 film (a puppet that was once described as “essentially two mattresses slapping together”), Erth’s Audrey II is a monstrous and sprawling creation, part inflatable puppet and part Venus fly-trap from hell. In her early incarnations she is the standard holdable glove-puppet, operated by an actor’s hand, but as she grows, she becomes something like a vampire cloaked in her own leaves, before expanding again and filling most of the Hayes’ small stage and threatening to spill into the audience.
But despite the allure of the ‘mean green mother from outer space,’ Little Shop of Horrors is a love story between Seymour and his co-worker Audrey. Played by Brent Hill,
is a likeable Everyman, his charm and enthusiasm easily disguising his
predilection for murder and/or dismemberment. Esther Hannaford’s Audrey is
naïve but not saccharine, and has real guts and emotion which shine through in
her big moments. Tyler Coppin brings youthful agility and great comic timing to
his Mr Mushnik; Scott Johnson’s dentist is perhaps not as dangerous as he could
be, but he nonetheless still fits within the world of the musical; Seymour Josie Lane,
Angelique Cassimatis, and Chloe Zuel as the chorus are sassy and sharp.
But perhaps more importantly, this production foregrounds several elements in the story which have always been glossed over before. There are shades of domestic abuse, sexual violence, notions of self-image and self-esteem, and – more importantly in this production, so far as the voice of Audrey II is concerned – issues of mental illness. Rather than detracting from the story, these facets add to the darkness at the heart of the story; and while Menken and Ashman juxtapose them (incredibly!) against a comedy-of-errors love story and the threat of an incoming apocalypse, they don’t detract from the colour and tongue-in-cheek nature of the show but enrich it ten-fold.
Under Dean Bryant’s direction, this Little Shop of Horrors blooms into full-blooded life and threatens to leave a grin permanently fixed upon your face. Currently playing at the Hayes theatre before embarking on a national tour which takes in six capital cities, it looks like Audrey II’s plans for world domination are taking shape.
“But remember: whatever they offer you, don’t feed the plants!”