Social Secretary Ella Kipling praises the band, set design and puppetry of plant-villain Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors, but was left feeling uncomfortable by the director’s treatment of the show’s darker themes
Content Warning: This article mentions domestic abuse
Little Shop of Horrors at the Crescent Theatre in Birmingham was an enjoyable watch, with effective staging, a fantastic band, and a cleverly done ‘Audrey II’ (the infamous villain of this horror musical).
While the idea of setting the classic 1960s musical in 2002 could be a good one, if I had not read the programme, I would have been left extremely confused. The musical began with the Urchins performing a small dance routine and song whilst wearing tracksuits and Nike trainers, which felt disjointed compared with the staging and choreography, which placed the musical firmly in the 60s. This lack of cohesion continued when Audrey would be seen in a 60s style dress with white high heels, while the Urchins would be in denim jackets and hoodies.
Other than this, the staging was a real asset to the musical, with the simplistic flower shop providing a brilliant setting. The use of the window in the shop to show passers-by and the street corner, where the Urchins predominantly sat, also added to the set and helped build a realistic ‘Skid Row.’ The band delivered a flawless performance with musical highlights including Be a Dentist, Suddenly Seymour, and Finale.
Unfortunately, the musical was further undercut by the director’s letter in the programme. Kevin Middleton states that he did not want Seymour to be ‘kookey or gimmicky’ in his staging of Little Shop of Horrors, but it is hard to see how the character was anything but those things as he stumbled around the stage and spoke with a caricature-esque voice whilst wearing a sweater vest and mismatches trousers. Middleton also spoke of his desire to draw out some of the ‘darker’ themes in the musical, such as Audrey’s past and the domestic abuse she suffers. However, I was left feeling uneasy after several jokes made about her abuse led to laughter from the audience. Audrey explains that she is grateful that her abusive boyfriend has disappeared as she no longer has to spend her money on ‘epsom salts and bandages.’ If Middleton wanted to present Audrey’s troubles in a more serious light, having her abusive partner presented in a comical way (strutting around the stage belting out that he is a dentist because he enjoys inflicting pain) does not appear to be the way to go.
That being said, Little Shop of Horrors did boast several highlights, one being Now (It’s Just The Gas), a duet between Seymour and Orin in the dentist’s office, which ultimately leads to Orin’s death as he is unable to remove his gas mask. Oliver Jones perfects the sleazy, offsetting aura of Orin, but does not leave the production after his character’s death, and comes back to the stage later on. Much to the amusement of the audience, Jones plays three different characters in rapid succession in which he pulls off quick changes in what must be hyperspeed backstage.
However, it was Audrey II, the plant, that was the true star of the show. Having a sentient plant on stage, which grows exponentially throughout the show and eats several characters, is not easy to pull off, but Little Shop of Horrors at the Crescent nails it. Thanks to the work of Jenny Thurston, who has been a puppeteer for CBeebies and manned the plant in the show, Audrey II was a lifelike, intricate feat of puppetry. Mark Shaun Walsh, who voiced Audrey II, also deserves a mention. His songs as the plant were the strongest vocal performances in the show and Walsh’s smooth jazz-like lilt gave Audrey II the personality needed to make the audience truly believe there was a man-eating plant on stage.
Despite a few technical errors such as microphones seemingly not being turned off backstage (which led to one of the actors’ conversations being heard by the audience) and muffled audio, the actors pushed through like true professionals, not missing a beat. While some notes were missed and elements of choreography forgotten, Little Shop of Horrors was an enjoyable watch with strong characterisation and successful staging.
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