Review: Little Shop of Horrors, New Wolsey Theatre

This charming production of Little Shop of Horrors bathes in warm nostalgia but still has some bite at the New Wolsey Theatre and touring the UK

“Explosion! Bang! Kerboom!
Don’t it go to show ya never know”

The usual modus operandi for a theatre critic is to aim for an objective viewpoint in surveying the performance but sometimes, particularly where classic musical theatre is concerned, you just gotta lead with the heart. Little Shop of Horrors is probably one of my absolute favourite shows and I’ve taken pretty much every opportunity I’ve had to have some fun now, from my mum’s school production when I was kneehigh to a grasshopper to productions by the Menier, Selladoor, the Open Air Theatre, and peerless work at the Royal Exchange.

This latest touring production is a collaboration between co-producers New Wolsey Theatre, Hull Truck Theatre, Octagon Theatre Bolton and Theatre By the Lake, directed by Lotte Wakeham with real chomping charm. Set in a hard-scrabble neighbourhood of New York, hapless florist’s assistant Seymour dares to dream of life beyond Skid Row and finds himself assisted in this cause by a strange plant he’s cultivating that looks like a Venus flytrap but which has growing tastes more predatory than he could imagine. With a Faustian deal in action, can Seymour manage the carnage that comes with this celebrity.

Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s musical dates from the early 1980s but harkens back to the 1960s with the irresistible elements of doo-wop and rock and roll in its iconic score. Wakeham’s actor-musician production brings that music right down to the streets of TK Hay’s evocative design as the Greek chorus of Crystal (Zweyla Mitchell dos Santos with some enormously impressive riffs), Ronette (Chardi Shaw in an assured professional debut), and Chiffon (a hugely charming Janna May) busk their way through the show on guitars and keys as well as harmonising like a dream.

Oliver Mawdsley’s jittery Seymour also sounds glorious, teetering on the edge of his sanity and kept from the brink by the soothing presence of his would-be paramour Audrey, Laura Jane Matthewson locating real empathy with the character and her beautiful songs (the perfectly judged hand movement for ‘I’m his December bride’ achingly beautiful). She’s involved in an abusive relationship with idiosyncratic dentist Orin Scrivello (DDS) (Matthew Ganley gleefully licking his drillbit) but Wakeham ensures this is presented sensitively with the right level of rueful humour until destiny kicks in.

Anton Stephans is clearly having a ball growling through Audrey II’s number, as the ever-growing plant comes to be known. Michael Fowkes’ evolving puppet design (manipulated by Matthew Heywood) maybe hits charming more than chilling but ultimately that suits the warmly nostalgic vibe here better. Whether you can mouth along to pretty much every song (like me) or this would be your first visit to Mushnik and Son, it is an entertaining take on a genuinely classic musical.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Pamela Raith
Little Shop of Horrors is booking at New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 23rd March, then Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, 27th March–20th April; Octagon, Bolton, 24th April–18th May; and Hull Truck, 22nd May–8th June.

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