Colchester Mercury musical warns us: ‘Don’t feed the plants’
- Credit: Richard Davenport
Little Shop of Horrors is a classic piece of West End retro theatre. As Arts Editor Andrew Clarke discovers it taps into an early 60s soundscape while the drama has plenty to say about the here and now
There’s a showbiz maxim which clearly warns performers ‘never work with children or animals’. Why? Because they can upstage you in an instant with a shy smile or a cheeky wag of the tail.
You could have sweated blood getting under the skin of your character - driven yourself to the edge of madness in order to show the reality of the situation and these untrained newcomers will be the only thing that the audience will talk about as they exit the theatre.
Now, you can probably add giant-sized talking plants to the showbiz warning as the hyper-active, flesh-eating plant threatens to take over the life of hapless florist Seymour Krelborn and the love of his life Audrey.
The musical, by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, who went onto to create The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin for Disney, was their first big hit on Broadway and was based on the low-budget 1960 black comedy film The Little Shop of Horrors, directed by cult B movie- director Roger Corman.
The musical keeps that early sixties feel by having a score which not only recreates the sound of the era but utilises a Greek chorus, in the form of a soul-singing girl group, who comment on the action around them. The girls are named, appropriately enough, after the three most popular girl groups of the era – Chiffon, Crystal and Ronette.
The action takes place in Skid Row, a downbeat district of New York, where Seymour is an orphan working for Jewish florist Mr Mushnik. Seymour has twin passions: a far-off love for fellow shop worker Audrey, and collecting rare and unusual plants. Suddenly, one day, during a total eclipse of the sun, Seymour spots a bizarre but sickly cutting outside a neighbouring store and takes it back home to nurse it back to health.
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After calling it Audrey II, he discovers that the only thing that will put colour back in its leaves is fresh blood. As the plant grows Seymour finds that Audrey II is not only a most unusual plant but it also has the ability to get inside his head.
It comes as no surprise that, as in the best B movie tradition, the plant turns out to be more than a simple plant and starts devouring the neighbourhood.
For director Gareth Machin it’s the realisation of a long-held dream to director the show. “I’ve loved the show for a very long time. It’s got a fantastic score – that Motown/rock’n’roll/soul/do-wop soundtrack is just completely infectious – it really gets an audience going but from a professional point of view I love the ingenuity required to get the plant acting in a believable way, so the audience just accept this larger-than-life, singing, talking piece foliage as completely normal and suspend their disbelief and just enjoy the show.
“For me that’s hugely exciting and a great challenge for our design team.”
He said that the show manages to be both a time capsule – capturing the look and the sound of the early 1960s – and also having something to say about the world in which we live today.
“I think it’s true that it does offer a hermetically sealed world for these events to unfold in. It doers very successfully recreate the times which gave birth to cold war paranoia and the B movies which were a reaction to that.
“The musical cleverly recreates that fear of the unknown that was prevalent at the time – the fear that something from somewhere else was going to come along and destroy the world that you know and love.
“It has that aura created by the Roger Corman film but it also has that aspirational feeling of wanting to create a better world – Somewhere That’s Green as the song says. Audrey, the small-town girl that Seymour loves from afar, is very much our way into that and is very much from that period – and yet, in these times of austerity and economic uncertainty, many of their concerns are very much in the here and now.
“There are global conflicts causing fear and instability across the world. As we still fight to recover from the economic downturn, perhaps there are small businesses like Mushnik’s flower shop struggling to make ends meet in places like Skid Row. So, unfortunately, perhaps their world is not so different from our own.”
He said that one of the first things that they discovered when rehearsals started was that it was easy to see Audrey II not as a puppet or even as a plant but as an equal member of the cast.
“The way that the part is written and the way that it is brought to life by our team voicing and animating the plant means that Audrey II is a leading character in the play. No-one is going to ignore him – or is it her? Audrey II is a big presence on the stage.
“It is a living, breathing entity with a big, big personality. From my point of view I am directing the plant as I would any other member of the cast. It doesn’t matter that it’s a giant-sized puppet – you just regard it as one of the actors on stage.” He said that the secret to getting the actors and the audience to accept Audrey II as real is to realise that this plant is an intelligent, scheming individual and you have to allow the operators to imbue its character with those qualities.
“There are things that it wants from Seymour and it will do everything it can to cagoule, persuade and eventually bully Seymour into supplying its wants until it can take care of itself.
It’s at that point that the world then has to worry.”
He said that it takes a team of actors and technicians to bring Audrey II to life but because they have been in the rehearsal room interacting with their human counterparts the show has never had a problem of mixing life action with puppetry.
“A lot of modern theatrical puppetry has been very obviously influenced by WarHorse where you can clearly see the operators. Ours is a more old-fashioned, back-to-basics take of theatre puppetry where the operators are invisible and we are looking to convince our audience that this strange plant from outer space is real, charming and very deadly. We want people to forget that this is a puppet. We are looking to give it so much personality that people want at first to spend as much time with it as they can and then be terrified by it.”
As Audrey II grows, four different puppets are required during the course of the show and Gareth is delighted that the props makers have been able to come up with a way of making those four puppets grow while they are on stage.
He said that he is delighted that they have got a strong cast that can hold their own against a puppet that is constantly looking to upstage its real-life co-stars.
Ben Stott, who has been in Wicked in the West End, is playing Seymour while Frances McNamee, who starred in the RSC’s recent production of Love’s Labour’s Lost and also starred in the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production of Pride and Prejudice, is the real Audrey while Jez Unwin, who has recently left Once in the West End, plays Audrey’s sadistic dentist boyfriend Orin.
Gareth said that the trick to making good comedy is ground the laughs in reality. “I am a great believer in playing it straight. The cast shouldn’t be offering a nod or a wink to the audience.
“The laughs should come from the situation, so we will be offering up a very real, recognisable neighbourhood but having said that because it has been inspired by this B Movie world, everything is just that little bit heightened. The colours are just that little bit brighter and sharper than they would in our world.”
Little of Horrors is running at the Colchester Mercury from May 27 to June 13.
Frances McNamee on playing Audrey, a typically 1960s heroine
Audrey is possibly one of the hardest roles for a modern actress to play because her character has limited aspirations. All she wants is to have a nice house, be married and have children.
Was it difficult to get into her head, particularly when we first meet her she is desperately clinging onto an abusive boyfriend?
“To be honest, yes, it was hard at first to establish a link with her because she is beaten up by her boyfriend and she keeps going back to him because that’s all she has.
In some way she is a bit of a victim. My Dad said to me that he thought it was a real stretch for me to play her because he couldn’t imagine me taking that sort of crap from anyone. I tend to stick up for myself a little bit more but at the end of the day you have to build bridges, you have to ask yourself: ‘Why is she like this, why does she stay with Orin?’ I told myself it is because that’s the world she lives in – that’s the way she was brought up and in the early ‘60s people like Audrey didn’t always have the opportunity to get out of abusive relationships.
A high price was put on being part of a couple, settling down and raising a family.
“Part of me can see that because I do want to be more domestic. I would love to have time just to keep my home tidy. Just have to find the things you connect with and build a character from there.
“I tried to approach Audrey from a real point of view and layer the comedy on top of that. So, Audrey’s not a joke. She’s a real person and that gives her that link with the audience.”
‘Faust by another name’ says Ben Stott
Ben is the actor who has the most interaction with the Audrey II puppet. So does he feel that he is being upstaged by a talking plant and is it easy to treat a giant-sized puppet seriously? “It’s surprisingly easy to accept that Audrey II is real. You just do.
It’s strange but I don’t think I’ve ever looked at it and though that’s just a couple of guys working a puppet.
To me, it really is a strange talking plant from who knows where.
“Leon Craig provides a wonderful voice for Audrey II and he gives the plant plenty of attitude and we have another actor Andrew London working and moving Audrey II and they have been working closely together so they get this super-sized plant moving and talking as living, thinking creature. They really do bring the plant to life and make it appear as a fully fleshed character.”
Ben said that for him, the joy of the show is that it provides a platform for a host of wonderfully witty and evocative 60s style songs while at the same time being a dark Faust story.
“People don’t realise because it’s this larger-than-life story about a talking plant that really it’s the story of Faust by another name. That’s what gives the story it’s depth. Seymour is a flawed character. He’s a nice man but he finds himself tempted by the plant who offers him what is essentially a pact with the devil to get fame, fortune and the girl he loves and in order to achieve this he finds that he is having to betray the very principles that he holds most dear.”