Little Shop of Horrors, the brainchild of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, is a zany musical about abusive relationships, a giant carnivorous plant and the cost of success. The premise is pure B movie sci-fi: an extraterrestrial plant requires human blood to grow – the more it grows, the more flesh it desires. However, Mushnik’s Flower Shop is only able to survive in Skid Row because of the popularity of this “strange and interesting plant”, Audrey II, which consequently presents the protagonists with a series of moral dilemmas. With its catchy songs and wacky props, Little Shop of Horrors is a show like no other, featuring musical hits by the same geniuses who would go on to co-write the music for Disney’s the Little Mermaid. Having long been fans of the show, we were eager to see what Shotgun Theatre had in store for this production at Exeter Phoenix.
The intimate venue allowed the actors to incorporate the whole theatre into their performance, roaming around the stalls as well as the stage and making good use of the available space. A live band was placed alongside the set, who played excellently and brought the show to life. A slight drawback of having the band in such close proximity to the audience was that the vocals were sometimes overpowered, although this may have been less of an issue for audience members at the other side of the theatre. The tightly packed set was equipped to accommodate the ever-increasing growths of Audrey II who would take centre-stage throughout the show. The rest of the cast were individually strong, giving convincing portrayals of their characters through impressive acting and singing performances. Sometimes they did lack cohesion, shown in slight delays in response to cues, but they were earnest to the spirit of the show and enthusiastic enough to make up for these small slip-ups.
The story is certainly attention-grabbing with never a dull moment. It follows the tragic hero, Seymour, on his quest for love and success in a futile attempt to escape from Skid Row. Whilst the narrative feels familiar in terms of characters’ motives, with Audrey and Seymour’s vision of moving away to a house “somewhere that’s green” reminiscent of the American Dream, the means used are significantly more bizarre as the protagonists require the aid of Audrey II, a plant from outer space. This plant grows more dangerous with its increasing size and anthropomorphism, soon threatening the health of humans. Audrey II’s partner in crime, and the protagonist of the show, is played by Sean Wareing who portrayed Seymour as an endearing, bumbling doormat, with the sole desire to be loved for who he is by any man, woman or plant.
His primary love interest, Audrey, played by Saffron Wainwright, brings a naivety and vulnerability to the part, while hinting at a murky past, with these qualities showcased admirably in her rendition of ‘Suddenly, Seymour’. The chemistry between the two leading roles was sickly sweet and offset nicely by Tom Dean’s convincing portrayal of Orin the dentist, Audrey’s sadistic boyfriend. It is a hard part to get right but Dean fortunately brought an appropriate mania to the role. Craziness was infused in his character through erratic hip movements and hysteric giggling, induced by laughing gas, which ironically and comically led to his death.
In the biggest productions of Little Shop of Horrors, the true star of the show is Audrey II. The plant grows from pot plant size to gargantuan, with advanced animatronics and puppeteering used to make it seem like a living, breathing character, voiced by a mic’d up actor offstage. Shotgun’s version went with a more unique angle by having the voice of Audrey II as a character in itself on stage: Alma Crespo slinked around the set dressed head to toe in green and fleshed out the serviceable Audrey II puppet with her facial expressions and body movements. Although the puppet was still impressive in its size and quality, especially for a small-scale student performance, the use of an additional actor in the characterisation of Audrey II successfully enhanced the performance. Crespo’s interpretation seems to have been inspired by the ‘Mean Green Mother’ song of the film version of the musical, as her tone contained a more menacing and threatening quality throughout, as opposed to the usual suave charm opted for by other adaptations of the musical. Her voice was powerful enough to justify this choice, moving from seductive whispering to bombastic screaming with impressive suddenness.
The part of Mushnik was played ably by Rachael Crozier, who was convincing as the stingy shopkeeper who insidiously decides to adopt Seymour to tie his success to her shop. The musical scene in which this takes place was a particular highlight for the audience, with its dramatic irony and comical choreography underpinning the roller-coaster relationship between Seymour and ‘Mother’ Mushnik. Framing the narrative were three urchins from the streets of Skid Row, who gave enthusiastic performances throughout.
Overall, we were thoroughly entertained thanks to this refreshing interpretation of Little Shop of Horrors, which is arguably one of the most challenging musicals to stage for any production team. Shotgun Theatre prides itself on being the University of Exeter’s ‘boldest’ musical theatre society, and it is their daring and ambitious approach which is to thank for the success of this production. The two hours rushed by, and the audience was left wanting more. Whatever Shotgun Theatre does next, it’s sure to be bold.
– Billy French and Laura Leichtfried
All images belong to Shotgun Theatre.