Theatre's lean, green eating machine

Actor/musician musicals is something the New Wolsey Theatre does very well.

Andrew Clarke

Actor/musician musicals is something the New Wolsey Theatre does very well. Their latest production Little Shop of Horrors offers an additional challenge in that one of the leading characters is a puppet which has to be accepted as a living creature. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to director Peter Rowe and designer Mark Walters about creating a man-eating plant.

“Feed Me. Feeed Me!” These are the urgent, pleading lines from Audrey II - that jive-talking, mean-green, man-eating space plant that forms the central focus for the evocative 1950s-set musical Little Shop of Horrors.

The musical from Beauty and Beast composers Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, is the latest home-grown musical at the New Wolsey Theatre and presents designer Mark Walters and director Peter Rowe with a challenge - how do you make audiences believe that a puppet pot plant is a charismatic leading character that match live actors on the stage?

The answer lies in making the cast believe that the plant is real. Peter Rowe says that if the cast believe then the audience will to. The other factor is the actors providing the plant's voice and operating the increasingly large puppets working closely with the human actors.

“It's a show where all the elements have to come to together to make it work and that's part of the thrill of doing it,” says Peter.

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It also helps that it's a fun show - a 1950s pastiche, which pokes gentle fun at the concerns of the era and the look of the times. It was a time when B movies about invasion from outer space were really popular and America was pre-occupied with preserving its identity in the face of what it perceived as a communist threat. More importantly it was also the birth of rock'n'roll and teenage rebellion.

For director Peter Rowe it's a rich mix and promises both actors and audiences a lot of fun. “I did the play 20 years ago when I was at The Bubble (theatre) and I had such a great time with it, that I always wanted to do it again. I like the fact that it's spoofing America of the period and spoofing musical theatre conventions. There's a lot of fun to be had with those moments when people just burst into song. Also there's a fine line to be walked between the sincerity that the story needs and the wink at the audience about how absurd the whole thing is, which you need to make the show work.

“I remember it being a fantastically fun show both for us working on it and for the audience as well - and the music is great. The score is fantastic and the songs are all really strong. It just captures the feel of the times.”

The musical revolves around poor lowly Seymour Krelborn, a former orphan who works in Mushnik's, a run-down flower shop on the wrong side of the tracks. He loves co-worker Audrey Fulquard from afar, unable to work up the courage to ask her out and get her to leave her abusive boyfriend Orin - a motor-bike riding, sadomasochistic dentist.

One day during a solar eclipse, he discovers a strange and remarkable plant which he takes home. The plant is sick and weedy but Seymour nurtures it but quickly discovers that not only can it speak but it has a charismatic charm about it. It quickly assesses Seymour's lack of success and sets about transforming his life - but as with all these things it comes at a price. Audrey II, as the plant as been christened, is perhaps not as benevolent as Seymour supposed.

Commenting on the action are three girl-singers who function as a Greek chorus in song, narrating the action and sign-posting the changes of scene.

It's a play with a large cast, particularly for regional theatre in these straightened times. “The show has a large sound and a large feel to it. It looks like a big production but the story has quite an intimate focus,” says Peter. The story is basically between Seymour and Mushnik, Seymour and Audrey and Audrey and Orin - with the plant Audrey II developing as a character as we go through the show.”

The intimate feeling is helped by the fact that, as with the New Wolsey's other actor/musician shows, the band is formed by the actors.

But the biggest challenge is making the loud-mouthed, incredibly cool and hip, space plant Audrey II into a believable character. This is where designer Mark Walters has to work closely both with the director and with the cast. Unlike other shows where the designer is just required to provide the backdrop against which the actors perform, on Little Shop of Horrors Mark is providing not one but three members of the cast. He is responsible for designing Audrey II in four different stages of growth.

He said that this has been a huge learning experience for him. He said that whereas on most shows he has a discussion with the director about the tone and feel of the show - discussing things like colour palettes - for Little Shop of Horrors there was a three month consultation with Peter Rowe discussing not only the setting but the role of Audrey as a character.

“Audrey II, our plant, went through a huge process of design. What we had to come up with were four different size puppets all doing their own particular thing in the show and gradually getting bigger and bigger. The Audrey we wanted to create was scary but funky and funny at the same time.

“Our approach to this was firstly establishing its voice, once the director had decided that I could then begin to bring the body to life. Once I had designed the plant the process didn't stop there, from this point prop makers then had to realise my design and from that came a long series of conversations, meetings and prototypes to practically make these plants speak move and even eat people.”

He said that Little Shop Of Horrors was one of the few shows where so much is dictated by the script. The plant alone has its own manual on how to produce it, right down to the last detail.

“The set has to do certain things like masking of the shop to the audience in certain scenes and more importantly house the four versions of the puppet plant. When we first approached the design we decided we wanted to put our own mark on it, so tried to incorporate all the key elements needed but create our own design.

“The first thing we had to do was come up with a method of concealing and then revealing the interior of the shop in a smooth, quick and easy way. At the New Wolsey the shape of the stage and the audience sightlines also created a challenge to me and Pete, the director. What we came up with first of all before any style, period or concept was our "revealing" of the shop method. For this we have two revolves which are set into the raised shop floor.

“This way we found we could have an interior shop scene on one side and an exterior shop and street set on the other.”

He said that despite the show's epic quality, large cast and big sound, there are only two sets - inside the shop and outside in the street. But the large scale illusion is maintained but Peter Rowe's need to anchor the play's B movie fantasy in the real world. So the set is incredibly detailed and real looking.

“We decided that we would keep all the naturalistic architecture you would get on the exterior and interior of a shop, but with the use of very stylised colour stamp our own mark on it. The Gotham City scenes from the recent Batman films were a huge influence in this, mainly the daytime scenes always being night times, with the moon that cast shadows and illuminates the buildings in a wash of blues and blacks. This is how we came to choose our main set colour, which makes a very bold and unique statement to our skid row production. ”

He said that one of the key facets of the design that he discussed with Peter Rowe was the fact that as Mushnik's business became increasingly successful, thanks to the influence of Audrey II, then colours and set decoration would become brighter. This would involve the cast quietly replacing blinds and props at each scene change.

“Our interior colours came from the style of the B movie magazines. What we wanted is when the shop reveals itself to the audience we go from dark and gloomy to a wash of bright garish colour.”

Peter said that they first discussed the design of the plant and the set in March. Because the design has been such a part of the development and the directing process, Mark has been encouraged to develop “in-jokes” within the set which will appear at pre-prescribed intervals and help tell the story while adding to the humour.

Mark said: “I like designing for a space like the Wolsey because you are not restricted by a traditional proscenium arch. It hasn't got that psychological barrier between the stage and the auditorium. You can blur the lines about where the stage ends and the auditorium begins. It is easier to invite the audience into a scene. It's easier for them to feel involved in a scene, part of the action.”

He added that that was his intention by designing the shop as a revolve at the front of the stage so the audience would feel that they were being invited into Mushnik's flower shop.

Peter said that it was important that Mark capture the character of Audrey II in his designs. “We talked a lot about the character of the plant. It does develop over time and I wanted that to be seen in the look of the plant as well in what it said. It starts out as this sweet, innocent, little seedling, then turns into this frisky, snappy adolescent and by the time it is fully grown I said to Mark I wanted it to be like a pimp from one of those '70s Blaxploitation movies.”

He added that in rehearsal he has developed this character not only with the actor providing the voice of Audrey II, Jo Servi, but also with New Wolsey carpenter-turned-puppeteer Dominic Eddington.

He said that both have to learn all the dialogue and in rehearsals have been sitting on a chair representing the plant getting a feel for the role. Their presence also gives something for the other actors to latch onto.

“We've sat Jo in a chair as the plant and I think that has really helped. They have been able to develop a relationship as actors. Now we have put Dom into the chair and Jo is having to do the voice from the back, from the band area, and we have a situation where Dom, the puppeteer is actually mouthing the lines as well, although it is Jo's voice we are hearing.”

He said the fact that Dom knows the lines will mean that he is able to move the plant in such a way as to make it act which, along with Jo's charismatic vocal performance, will sell Audrey II as a real character to the audience.

“Jo's performance is very strong. So even though he won't be seen, he is acting the part back stage. He is being the plant, he is giving a performance, he's not just reciting the lines. He's got monitors back stage he can see what's going on and he is able to combine with Dominic to make Audrey II come to life and give what would otherwise be an inanimate puppet a very lively personality.”

Little Shop of Horrors runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, from September 11 until October 4. Tickets are available from the box office on 01473 295900 or

Fast Facts:

Ellen Greene played Seymour's girlfriend Audrey both on Broadway and in the 1983 film.

Little Shop of Horrors was Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's first hit show. They were then hired by Disney to write the music for Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.

The voice of the plant was originally supplied by Four Tops singer Levi Stubbs.

The girls in the Greek chorus Crystal, Ronnette and Chiffon were named after 1960s girl groups

The musical had its world premiere on May 6, 1982 at the WPA Theatre, New York.

It closed on November 1, 1987, after 2,209 performances. It was the third-longest running musical and the highest-grossing production in off-Broadway history.