Book &Lyrics:Howard Ashman
Music: Alan Menken
Director: Gareth Machin
Musical Director: Richard Reeday
Choreographer: Nick Winston
Reviewer: Michael Gray
This cult musical is a cultivar of the 1960 Corman film; from modest origins off-Broadway, it has grown into a major industry, with community groups drawn to its catchy tunes and off-the-wall story. Specialist plantsmen supply the various Audrey IIs, from dwarf to magnifolia.
You’d wait a long time to see a more perfect specimen than this joint production with the Mercury’s Wiltshire twin, the Salisbury Playhouse, the work of its Artistic Director Gareth Machin.
Everything about it feels absolutely right. James Button’s fantastic design, inspired in part by the street photography of Vivian Maier turns Skid Row into a three-storey slum, with Richard Reeday’s band on the first floor above the shop. The subway rumbles beneath, while a corrugated curtain flies out to reveal the eponymous shop, which begins as a fly-blown failure and blossoms into Mishkin and Son.
The staging is full of ingenious ideas: the snapper and the hooker, the two clocks, the four phones, the bins, the magazines, the newspaper with the total eclipse on its front page and the faded poster for Attack of the Puppet People, another cult schlock horror classic. The costumes are clever too, embracing the “cheap and tasteless outfits” of the 1950s: the skirt of roses, the leopard-skin sling.
The excellent vocal trio – a grungy Greek chorus – branch out from “worthless ragamuffins” to plant-costumed backing group and botanical operatives taking the cuttings which will propagate this strange and unusual plant world-wide.
Crystal, Chiffon and Ronette – Gbemisola Ikumelo, Karis Jack, Carôle Stennett – are a key part of this production, their numbers superbly choreographed by Nick Winston. They pop up in the gutter, on the balcony, out of the drains to tempt Audrey in Suppertime.
She’s played by Frances McNamee, with a great vocal presence and a winningly vulnerable look in her Fay Wray nightgown.
Simeon Truby makes a wonderful Mushnik, and Jez Unwin is not only the rebel dentist in leather, with his quiff and ‘tache, a glorious hybrid of Elvis and Vincent Price, but also, in quick succession, Bernstein, Martin, and the wife of the editor of Time Magazine. Ben Stott is an exquisite Seymour: slight, speccy, his every movement speaking volumes.
The three carnivorous plants are impressive, too, voiced by Leon Craig and animated by Andrew London. Tapping its feet to the Senior and Junior shtick, grabbing its prey, turning its head knowingly, belching when Seymour finally succumbs.
The whole show feels almost operatic (in a good way), with the cast squeezing every last drop out of Ashman’s book and Menken’s music.
I half expected the height of the set to be used to make Audrey II tower like a beanstalk – instead, in a much more effective finale, singing clones appear on the upper levels and, as in the 1982 original, suckers drop down over the audience, threatening to devour all these enthusiastic young theatre-goers bathed in a ghastly leafy-green light…
Runs until June 13 | Photo Richard Davenport