York Stage in Little Shop Of Horrors, planted at York Theatre Royal until Saturday, 7.30pm nightly plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
THIS is a 40th anniversary production with plenty of firsts and one unquenchable thirst.
York Stage are making their Theatre Royal main-house debut after shows all over town; Filipino-born and trained, York further-educated actor and chef Mikhail Lim is cutting the mustard in a premier-league lead role; Lauren Sheriston is rocking blue hair for the first time as Audrey and…
…Audrey 2, the ever-expanding plant with the insatiable need to “feed me” with rather more than BabyBio, has undergone a sex change from bass-baritone bully to seductive soul diva and sprouted not only profuse foliage but an accompanying female embodiment in the form of Emily Ramsden: a sort of Christina Aguilera think bubble come alive. Or an Audrey 2 x 2, if you prefer.
This way, the jive-talking, blood-sucking, man-munching plant takes on even more of a personality, albeit less sinister than usual.
Not even initial sound-level problems could knock Ramsden off her stride. Quick thinking by musical director Stephen Hackshaw saw his band drop their volume, while a hand mic was found for Ramsden to see her through to the end of her opening number. After that, everything went tickety-boo as York Stage settled into new surroundings under the ever-watchful eye of director-producer Nik Briggs.
Little Shop Of Horrors is a grisly, if tongue in cheek, cautionary tale of the dangers of rampant commercialism and unsavoury greed, where the laughs are rooted in feet of clay and the protagonists die, laughing.
The director’s challenge is twofold, first to find the gory heart of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s rock’n’roll send-up of Roger Corman’s B-movie horror flick and Fifties’ American culture but to make us laugh like a hyena on the highway to hell while doing so.
Secondly, to not let the underlying moral message about the fallacy of the American dream – the profits of doom – stand in the way of a bluesy belter, a tender ballad, a dollop of girl-group doo-wop or a blast of rock’n’roll swagger.
Briggs’s propulsive production could be darker, more twisted in the manner of The Rocky Horror Show, but the laughs flow and the principals’ singing throughout is powerful, impassioned and sassy.
Little Shop Of Horrors is set in the trash can of the aspirant American Fifties, otherwise known as Skid Row, New York, as denoted by two big bins in Brigg’s otherwise colourful set and costume design.
Initially, Mr Mushnik’s struggling little flower shop feels a little crammed with unnecessary “stuff” on the Theatre Royal stage: twice Lim’s shop junior, Seymour Krelbourne, unintentionally bumps into a waste-bin by the counter, although his character is clumsy by nature – and as the plant and its notoriety threaten to outgrow the premises, it is only right that everything becomes a tighter squeeze.
Those bumps are the only false steps in an otherwise delightfully personable, pathos-led performance by Lim as the bespectacled, geeky loser Seymour, who grows from being comically, loveably awkward and love-struck to surprisingly ruthless and reckless as fame and fortune come his way once he signs his Faustian pact with Audrey 2. He has a sweet-sweet singing voice too that channels Sam Cooke’s tone.
Sheriston’s Audrey, the subject of Seymour’s crush, is being crushed by her abusive dentist boyfriend, Darren Lee Lumby’s corkscrew-haired, cocksure Orin, who threatens mental and dental health alike in his deranged bad-lad turn.
Sheriston has to pull off a now uncomfortable Fifties’ trait of being too good for her own good, to the point of self-sacrifice. Audrey is compliant yet resolute, and Sheriston’s performance, especially in her singing, conveys both those traits. Briggs gives her a spot-on wardrobe too, notably a green dress to rival Audrey 2’s leafage.
The thrill-seeking doo-wop chorus girls (Hannah Shaw’s Crystal, Lucy Churchill’s Chiffon and Cyanne Unamba-Oparah’s Ronnette) serve as Greek chorus and girl-group nostalgia alike with hen-party glee. By way of contrast, James Robert Ball’s phlegmatic Mr Mushnik is amusingly lugubrious, wearier than a latter-day Woody Allen.
Praise too to Hackshaw’s band, embellished with wood and brass; to Adam Moore for lighting that nods to Little Shop’s red and green livery, and to plant puppeteers Jack Hooper, Katie Melia and Danny Western, relishing their well-deserved applause when leaping out at the finale.
York Stage will return to the Grand Opera House for Kinky Boots from September 16 to 24, but looking ahead, maybe an ideal scenario is for Nik Briggs’s ever-busy calendar to accommodate shows at the Theatre Royal, Opera House and 41 Monkgate each year.