Review: Little Shop of Horrors – vibrant, camp escapism

Erin Harrington reviews Little Shop of Horrors, directed by Benjamin Henson, at The Court Theatre, Saturday 20 November 2021.

Cult sci-fi horror musical Little Shop of Horrors is one of those rare works of musical theatre that’s effectively smash-proof: it’s smart, consistently funny, frequently in circulation, worthy of repeat viewings, and desperately enjoyable. The Court Theatre’s vibrant summer production fulfills all expectations, and then some. It’s a camp, brightly-coloured treat that’s as seductive as the mysterious alien plant that sits at the centre of the narrative.  

Director Benjamin Henson has put together a strong cast of triple threats with great vocal technique and good comedic chops. Nerdy schmuck Seymour (Rutene Spooner) works at an ailing, fading flower shop run by Mr Mushnik (Jono Martin) in the middle of impoverished Skid Row. He’s in love with his squeaky-voiced co-worker Audrey (Monique Clementson), although her self-hating tastes lean more towards sadists, like Orin Scrivello, DDS (Roy Snow), a leather-clad dentist with a penchant for inflicting pain and huffing nitrous. After a total eclipse of the sun – a fitting conceit, given last night’s rare blood micromoon – Seymour discovers a strange and unusual plant (Brady Peeti) that seems to bring him (and the flower store) luck and prosperity. He dubs it Audrey II, but soon realises that she a) is sentient, b) will only thrive when fed human blood, and c) might have much bigger plans. Torn between self-preservation, loyalty, and wanting a way out of poverty, Seymour has to make what HR departments call “hard choices”. Cue murder, mayhem, and alien botanical carnage, all accompanied by a trio of shoo-wopping urchins (Ezra Williams, Kristen Paulse, Jane Leonard), as the show barrels towards an outlandish finale.

Distinct interpretive choices in staging and characterisation steer the production away from predictable beats. Spooner and Clementson are both exceptional, ably fleshing out a pair of characters who can easily tip towards broad-stroke caricature. Their performances are grounded, complex and vulnerable, dancing between desperation and hope. We’re rooting for them so hard that when they come together, in the stunning “Suddenly Seymour”, it’s goosebumps material. Spooner has such a charismatic presence as a cabaret performer that, as in Taki Rua’s recent production Sing to Me, it’s also a lot of fun watching him play low status.

I particularly love Jono Martin’s take on Mr Mushnik, who is less an aging Jewish shopkeeper who’s a relic of a more prosperous time, than a prickly street-corner chancer with a string vest and slicked back hair. Martin and Spooner are roughly the same age, which adds a further element of ridiculousness to “Mushnik and Son”, a killer hybrid klezmer-tango number in which Mushnik, worried Seymour is going to desert him, convinces his employee to beccome his adopted son.

The show’s production and tech design is also consistently well-considered, demonstrating an eye for fine detail and a great sense of the absurd. It presents a coherent, textured vision that starts with the dressing in the foyer and the themed food (I’m an easy mark for a gimmick), and carries through to the stage proper (which is used admirably to its full width and potential), especially as the world of the show expands beyond the on-stage action in spectacular fashion.

Drawing on Roger Corman’s original 1960 B-movie, Howard Ashman and Alan Menkin’s 1982 musical riffs on nostalgic American cultural beats of the late 50s and early 60s. Its skillful musical pastiche – rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues, and the pop hits of doo wop and Mo’town girl groups – is enriched by human Audrey’s yearning vision of suburban domestic bliss, an idealistic enactment of the post-war American Dream that might take her away from the grime and desperation of the city.

This production flips this, offering us the 1980s routed back through the 50s. Pop-cultural framing sets the tone from the outset. The Z-grade black and white film Killers From Space (1957) is projected on the curtains as we come in, positioning the production as a type of midnight madness outing, all cheap ray guns and atomic fear. Seymour’s given basketball singlets, caps and high tops, and Mushnik a clapped-out pop-up truck as his crusty flower shop. Dan Williams’ set is a decrepit 50s diner with busted neon sign, now bombed with hip hop-inspired graffiti, plonked right in the middle of Skid Row like a failed promise. This structure, which has additional uses later in the show, also houses the band – although I wish their space had been dressed a little, as through the diner window it looks stark, like an office, and it’s hard to see if the musicians are costumed or a part of the world. Overall, though, the layers of knowing wink-wink self-referentiality are kitsch and playful, honouring the show’s living approach to genre, and offering something new to those who might already be familiar with the show. It’s a mad, idiosyncratic time warp.

The Urchins: Kristin Paulse, Jane Leonard, and Ezra Williams (image credit: Danielle Colvin)

The show is famous for its use of puppets, as Audrey II grows from hungry seedling to monstrous singing man-eating flytrap. This production goes a more novel route, with Brady Peeti personifying the creature alongside other puppetry, prop and design elements. Early, while Seymour tends to his seedling, she starts peeking through the blinds of the diner, waggling her fingers coyly, her massive neon up-do – tucked under a housewife’s headscarf – making her look like a gorgeous, fluoro escapee from a John Waters film. It’s a useful conceit; we get the sense of the monster that’s waiting for her moment, especially as Peeti’s able to make the plant’s powers of control and persuasion obvious in ways that are more difficult with puppets.

As Audrey II grows, so does Peeti. She makes herself at home in the flower truck, then drapes herself across a chaise-longue, eventually coming to dominate the stage, playing with the full range of her vocal register, looking like a giant purple and green drag queen by way of Tim Burton and Ursula the sea witch. The monster becomes the set, which bleeds through into the costumes and lighting. “Do I look inanimate to you, bitch?” she snaps at Seymour once he realises the plant’s not quite the docile creature he thought. The plant is dubbed Treeyoncé in the programme, and this diva’s here to take over the planet (and the theatre) in a manner that’s quite unexpected.    

Little Shop of Horrors a fun, surprising and well-conceived show with a distinct point of view. That said, while the witty choreography and stage business is generally sharp, some rough edges on opening night mean that the beats leading up to the climax don’t quite land. In particular, there’s a key bit of stage movement, involving people being captured and eaten (hardly a spoiler), that doesn’t entirely read yet, but will no doubt settle and find its rhythm.

There’s some concern with levels, though. Court Theatre productions tend to keep the band loud, but here it’s frequently obscuring the vocals and lyrics. I know the show well but find myself lip reading, and my companion and I can hear people grizzling about it in the break. Tricky, too, when the audience is at capacity, but not full because of social distancing (although well-arranged), which will impact acoustics.

Hopefully this can be tweaked, as otherwise it’s a riotous show – and an inspired bit of programming, not least given the practicality of a small-ish cast. This year (and this week even) has been frustrating, uncertain and frightening. Little Shop of Horrors offers some welcome escapism, through a high-energy, tongue-in-cheek vision of a cosmic threat to humanity we can all get behind.

Little Shop of Horrors runs at The Court Theatre from 20 November 2021 – 15 January 2022. Theatre capacity is limited in keeping with COVID restrictions.

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