Little Shop of Horrors, New Wimbledon Theatre, London ★★★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

Somewhere in the darkest back streets of New York, a shop assistant is struggling with her abusive boyfriend, whose violent outbursts have left her with bruises and even broken bones. Her lovelorn work colleague, who has burned a torch for her for years, is finally driven to murder… with the help of a singing carnivorous plant from outer space.

Such is the dark meat at the heart of the black comedy within Little Shop of Horrors, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s musical which debuted oOff-Broadway in 1982.

Based on Roger Corman’s low-budget 1960 B-movie, it is true that Ashman’s book uses domestic abuse as a comedy prop; 30 years later, it feels even more uncomfortable, despite clearly marking out the perpetrator as an evil man who deserves his ultimate fate.

But that is Little Shop of Horrors all over – like all the best Off-Broadway musicals, it takes taboo subjects and gives them the comedy and musical treatments that the genre usually devotes to pure love. And there is a lot of love within the musical too: its central romance between nervy botanist Seymour (Sam Lupton) and the sweet-natured naughty girl Audrey (Stephanie Clift) is the show’s most wholesome element, playing out sweetly even as the world descends into utter chaos.

For her part, Clift takes inspiration from the portrayal of Audrey by Ellen Greene in both the original stage production and its movie remake, her nasal twang and faux naiveté going a long way to selling the character’s sweet hearted nature.

Lupton’s meekly geeky Seymour feels a little more original – David Shields’ costume design wisely sidestepping the bow tie-and-glasses look. Lupton’s warm performance and strong vocal delivery lend this most unlikely of leading men a real sense of heroism, even as he resorts to worse and worse tactics to feed the monstrous plant whose fame is rubbing off on himself.

And yet, despite two such strong leads, the marketing has been pushing the involvement of former X Factor contestant Rhydian as Audrey’s dentist boyfriend, Orin. This may have started out as another case of stunt casting, giving the show a recognisable name through which to sell tickets as the production tours the country: but as a larger-than-life comedy grotesque, Rhydian proves his worth, singing and acting his heart out to further enhance what is already an impressive revival.

Menken’s music flits effortlessly between 1950s pastiche (especially when sung by the show’s Greek chorus, Sasha Latoya, Vanessa Fisher and Cassie Clare) and more contemporary (most notably the show’s great love duet, ‘Suddenly Seymour’).

This touring production’s three-piece band, led by musical director Dustin Conrad, provide strong support to the singers.

But any production of Little Shop of Horrors stands or falls on the realisation of the carnivorous plant, Audrey II. Here, the rapidly growing plant progresses from stage prop to hand puppet to a massive, fully articulated monstrosity with ease.

True, the final gargantuan model, with its vaguely piscine head, has to resort to flapping its jaws up and down (one wishes for a puppet that size to have lip articulation to better match Neil Nicholas’ impressive voice work), but puppeteer Josh Wilmott does an impressive job imbuing such a large stage prop with the same degree of life and vigour which imbues the rest of this musical.

While watching this masterful revival of Ashman and Menken’s work, it is easy both to understand how the duo would go on to revive the tradition of the Disney movie musical, starting with The Little Mermaid, and also to marvel at the risk-taking of whichever executive saw Little Shop of Horrors and thought the creators should be handed the keys to the House of Mouse.

One’s thing for sure – this production brings out everything that is great about the original work, and may well be the best touring musical of the year.

Little Shop of Horrors continues at New Wimbledon Theatre until August 27, then tours. For tour dates, see littleshopuktour.comPhoto: Matt Martin

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