Little Shop of Horrors, Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury ★★★★✩

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Before Howard Ashman and Alan Menken revitalised the Disney musical starting with The Little Mermaid, they took the off-Broadway world by storm with their comedy musical retelling of a B-movie about an extraterrestrial carnivorous plant that grows to enormous size when fed on human blood. Over 30 years later, this exemplary touring production of The Little Shop of Horrors demonstrates just why a tale of an innocent man corrupted by fame is so much better when there’s a talking plant involved.

Sam Lupton’s Seymour, the botanist who tends for the plant he comes to call Audrey II, straddles the difficult bridge with being a comedic geek and the show’s romantic lead. At times, particularly when singing Mushnik and Son with his boss Mr Mushnik (Paul Kissaun) his slapstick style is reminiscent of the likes of Donald O’Connor. And that loveable, humble style makes his eventual romance with his co-worker Audrey (Stephanie Clift) all the more endearing.

For her part, Clift has to contend with a role that is easy to see as making light of domestic abuse – from the start, Audrey is involved in a relationship with a man who gives her black eyes, bruises and worse (when she sings of dating a “semi-sadist”, one has to remember that Audrey is the kind of character who looks for the best in everyone). And while her oppressor boyfriend eventually meets a well-deserved fate, there is the sense that such black comedy sits uneasily in the 21st century compared to the show’s other outrageous elements.

And that boyfriend – the dentist, Orin – dominates this touring production’s marketing materials, former X Factor contestant Rhydian Roberts leering out from all the show posters. That must place added pressure on his understudy Josh Wilmott, who normally works as the puppeteer behind Audrey II.

Wilmott has his own style of manic energy that is subtly different from Roberts’. And although it may be noticeable to those of us who have seen the show at other venues on the tour that Wilmott has not had as much chance to hone his portrayal, he still delivers the same level of manic energy – and strong singing vocals – that deliver the same amount of impact in a relatively short amount of onstage time. And while his role goes largely unseen, Phil Adèle also deserves credit for manipulating the man-sized Audrey II so well in Wilmott’s stead.

The three-piece band, led by musical director Dustin Conrad, perform Alan Menken’s music with just the right level of 1950s pastiche. They are complemented onstage by the trio of Sasha Latoya, Vanessa Fisher and Cassie Clare as a close harmony Greek chorus, providing commentary and narration in a style that Menken would later revisit for Disney’s Hercules. Unfortunately, as is often the case with touring productions in their first performance in a new venue, the sound balance resulted in some of the trio’s early lines being lost under the over-amplified band, but not to the show’s detriment in any great degree.

While the otherwise impressive set shows a few wobbles from time to time, the overall sense of The Little Shop of Horrors‘ production design is impressive for a touring show. That’s mainly due to its dominance by a huge carnivorous plant, of course – and the fun that comes from seeing a singing, talking, murderous flytrap helps contribute to a mean, green mother of a show.

This same production of The Little Shop of Horrors was also reviewed at the New Wimbledon Theatre. Read that review. The production continues to tour; details at littleshopuktour.com.

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