Staging something as wacky and raucous as Little Shop of Horrors is an ambitious venture for any theatrical company. You need big sets, big costumes, big talents, and bigger and bigger props. It can’t be cheap to put on a show like this, and I imagine this production has stretched the Mold theatre’s coffers and creativity to the limits, but thankfully they really pull it off.
Little Shop has a chequered history. Most people have seen or heard of the 1986 Hollywood film starring Rick Moranis and Steve Martin, and some people might be aware that director Frank Oz based that film on the 1982 stage musical by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. But there must be very few people who realise that back in 1960, there was a cheap non-musical film version directed by the king of B-flicks, Roger Corman. It starred nobody you’ve heard of, but did feature a 23-year-old Jack Nicholson in a bit part.
Clwyd Theatr Cymru’s version of Little Shop of Horrors stars West End star Daniel Boys, who may be forever locked in the public’s consciousness as “that bloke who came sixth in Any Dream Will Do”, the BBC’s 2007 search for a new Joseph. But since not winning that talent search, Daniel has continued to follow his dream and been a great success in musical theatre, appearing in big shows such as Avenue Q, Spamalot and Grease. Any Dream Will Do’s winner Lee Mead can be seen in Casualty these days.
Daniel brings his West End experience to the Mold stage and puts it front and centre. As geeky botanist Seymour Krelborn he manages to show off his established singing skills as well as his comic timing, but never overshadows his lesser experienced co-stars. In fact, Daniel is surprisingly understated at times, serving the character more than his reputation. That’s admirable in somebody who has seen and done much more than most of his colleagues on stage: he demonstrates what his experience has made him, but doesn’t lay it out to the detriment of the overall show.
For those uninitiated, Little Shop of Horrors is an improbable story about unrequited love, an abusive relationship, a strange and unusual carnivorous plant, and a deranged dentist. The plot is easy to follow, and makes way for the leftfield design and eccentric musical score, obviously influenced by Richard O’Brien and his Rocky Horror Show.
The cast is small – seven actors, a vocalist and a puppeteer – but they manage to populate the world on stage fully. Indeed, stealing the show from under the sharp-toothed petals of man-eating plant Audrey II is Garry Lake, who manages to play seven or eight different roles across the entire show. He is obviously having a whale of a time, showing wonderful character technique and entertaining comedy chops, particularly in his principal role as Orin, the dentist. Lake writhes, slides, gurns and boggles his way into what is a gift of a part, making his debut astride a motorbike, his performance cranked up to 10, and never letting his energy levels or eccentricity dip. He is a strange and compelling performer who commands your attention in whatever he’s doing, whether he’s a pencil-skirted female journalist or an obese sleazy businessman. In a show which boasts an expanding killer plant as its centrepiece, it’s quite an achievement for Lake to make his mark so strongly.
Georgina White as Audrey has the right look and vulnerability to get the audience on her side, and when she launches into her solo Somewhere That’s Green, she has the audience in the palm of her hand. Her rendition is heartfelt and beautiful, transcending the Skid Row twang the cast have had to adopt in their performances.
I was also impressed with the three backing singers/ dancers who form a kind of Greek Chorus for the piece. The amusingly named Crystal, Ronette and Chiffon launch the show in red sparkly dresses and beehive wigs, and crop up throughout as either Skid Row deadbeats or incidental performers (I was particularly tickled by them suddenly popping up from behind the shop counter for Seymour’s Da-Doo). Maisey Bawden is a member of a close harmony Motown group, and you can tell, while Paige Miller is so confident that you’d never guess this was her professional debut. However, it is Danielle Kassarate who sizzles the most – she has a great voice which perfectly suits the period songs, and enters into the dance routines with spirit and enthusiasm. Some of her facial expressions are a delight!
And what about Audrey II, the strange and unusual pot plant that starts out the size of an orchid but by the end of the show literally fills the stage… I’ve seen more animated Audrey IIs, but puppeteer Michael Humphreys knows what he’s doing (he’s worked on War Horse) and manages to complement Daniel Lloyd’s terrific vocal performance well. There’s a lovely little bit of business when Phylip Harries’ Mr Mushnik mentions that Orin – earlier devoured by man-eating Audrey II – is thought to have disappeared forever, and Audrey II nods knowingly to the audience in the background. This raised a wave of chuckles in the audience, and I’d like to have seen more of that gentle fourth wall-breaking by Audrey II, but there’s always a risk of upstaging the actors.
The set by Ruth Hall and Max Jones is impressive, complete with slide-away shopfronts and Skid Row back alleys, as well as the blinding addition of an illuminated fairground-style sign at one point, along with giant strobing arrow. It’s indicative of the ambition and verve with which the Clwyd Theatr Cymru team has approached this production. By the show’s epic finale you’re under no illusion that this is one of the biggest, most complex, but overwhelmingly fun and successful, productions the Mold theatre has staged in some time. When you see Daniel Boys singing Don’t Feed the Plants dressed as a giant flower, surrounded by flailing tendrils and exploding lighting rigs, you know you’ve got your money’s worth!
Little Shop of Horrors is a surreal, eccentric show full of colour and fun and black humour. Unless you’re familiar with the 1986 film, you likely won’t have heard of any of the songs, but this doesn’t matter as they are written and arranged in such a beautifully evocative style that they feel familiar. The score takes its lead from those great girl groups of the early 1960s and cannot fail to put a smile on your face.
This production is something you might expect to see at Mold at Christmas time (indeed, it was staged by Manchester’s Royal Exchange last season, to great success). It’s big, it’s bold, it’s glitzy and it’s uncompromising in its determination to entertain. Go and see it and leave with a grin on your face. Just remember – don’t feed the plants!