If you grew up watching, or continue to watch, Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast then you will be immediately familiar with the partnership of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. However, this partnership was not limited to film and made an impact on the off-Broadway scene in 1982 with Little Shop of Horrors, a musical depicting the rise of an extraterrestrial fly-trap who feeds on human blood and the attempts of a hapless florist, Seymour, as he balances the demands of the plant and with his own life as a whole.
After a run on the West End in both 1983 and 2006 and two following UK tours in 2009 and 2016, Little Shop of Horrors has been revived once more but in a completely fresh style for Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. I was extremely excited to see this show as I love the music and I had seen the previous, in comparison more traditional, UK tour in 2016. I am also a massive nerd when it comes to puppetry in theatre and while I was aware of the biggest change in this production, which we will discuss below, ahead of time I still wanted to see how it would be incorporated. This was also my first ever experience of open-air theatre and I thought that this was the perfect show to start with.
This revival cast is lead by Marc Antolin as Seymour and I loved his performance. He very quickly became, by far, the most relatable Seymour that I have seen. A risk when playing Seymour is that, due to the alterations in his opinions and the actions that follow this, the audience could begin to highlight the construction of the show as a story in which the actor must do this particular action to follow the script and it can break the immersion, however, Antolin ensured that his actions and, vitally, reactions were very realistic and the audience was always with him and agree with his motivations at least if not his actual actions. I will discuss below that I felt that there were some changes to Seymour’s position in the story but these did not clash with Antolin’s characterisation as Seymour at all. Alongside him is Jemima Rooper as Audrey and, again, I loved her interpretation of Audrey. With her new cotton candy pink hair, Rooper ensures that Audrey is very human rather than simply the convenient love interest. Both Antolin and Rooper create a lovely onstage pairing who begin very realistically as award friends and gradually develop into more and it was a treat to watch.
Little Shop of Horrors is known for an opening that should be full of energy and it really needs to grab the attention of the audience. The three girls who act as semi-narrators for the show, Chiffon, Ronnette and Crystal, can make or break this opening and they need to keep up their energy throughout their unique positioning in the show. Renee Lamb, Christina Modestou and Seyi Omooba absolutely stole the show during the opening number as they commanded the stage and their powerful voices ensured that the audience heard every word. I was also very impressed by their costumes, by Tom Scutt, and choreography, by Lizzi Gee, during ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ and ‘Downtown’ as these instantly gave the show an air of one which has been updated. It’s rare for a musical to be updated correctly as it is usually done through script and joke changes, however, this revival has provided a perfect example of how to subtly update a show, bring it into the current musical trends, whilst not changing a word of the script and remaining true to Menken’s original style of early Motown and 1960s rock and roll in the composition.
Little Shop of Horrors is a show made famous by its puppetry relating to the main antagonist, Audrey II, in relation to the voice actor who is often off-stage. However, this revival completely flips this and has instead created a very much on-stage presence for Audrey II in Vicky Vox. As a Drag Queen Vicky brings a hilarious dry humour in both voice and action to Audrey II and the relationship between Seymour and the plant. Her physical humour in instructing Seymour is hilarious and she couples this with quite a sultry vocal performance for all of the show’s big hitters such as ‘Feed Me’. However, this does actually result in a change to Seymour’s positioning as a “jerk” as he is in previous productions of Little Shop of Horrors. We were also treated to a wonderful encore performance of ‘Mean Green Mother’ from the 1986 film adaptation at which Vicky was the centre. While I wish that they had stayed with something more closely resembling the promotional material, her costumes left nothing to the imagination and ensured that the audience knew that she was entirely the plant in herself, especially her finale costume which looked stunning. I simply feel that this dry sarcasm certainly made up for a certain lack of the sinister nature normally attributed to Audrey II, but other than this I love Vicky’s inclusion in this cast.
However, this doesn’t mean that there is no puppetry whatsoever. Until the excellent reveal in ‘Feed Me/Git It’ the puppetry methods of Audrey II are entirely traditional simply with an updated style in appearance, which I will discuss below. Following this, Vicky is quite separated at times from the mouth of the plant and my one reservation is that I wish that there was more coherence between the literal puppetry and Vicky as the voice rather than using it simply for the mouth. Despite this, I wouldn’t be sad if this was a new style of Audrey II which remained in further revivals.
The overall design of this show, in my opinion, blends the two standard styles of productions of Little Shop of Horrors. Antolin’s acting and his relationship with Rooper’s Audrey in a set of black, white and grey skyscrapers gives a particular edge of realism to a production which invokes a comic book style through Audrey II and the plants during the finale, ‘Don’t Feed the Plants’. Throughout the show the plants and anyone connected with them provide a stark pop of colour and the comic book setting it evoked, again, aided the production in being both grounded in the original setting whilst also being up to date compared to previous productions. Matt Willis certainly comes into his own in this combination as Orin, and, uniquely, a colourful collection of other various characters during ‘The Meek Shall Inherit’. He proves to be just as colourful as his costumes as his characterisation is both unique and pays homage to those who have played the gas-obsessed pain loving dentist before him.
I also have to give a special mention to Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. This was my first visit to the venue and I was immediately struck by what a beautiful theatre it is. However, due to the British weather, we did have a quick rains spell which did cause the show to stop. However, the staff were lovely and very informative letting us know what they were going to do and how long they were roughly going to wait for the rain to subside. Luckily it did subside relatively quickly and didn’t stop the show completely but, in retrospect, I’m glad that it happened as it showed just how helpful the staff are and gave us the full open-air theatre experience. The rain also came at an absolutely perfect moment as Antolin was able to improvise with hilariously quick wit and point to the sky as he sang “I’ve given you rain”.
Overall, this is an absolutely vibrant and innovative revival which really shows others how it’s done in bringing older shows to a modern day audience whilst never compromising any of the original material. The additions and changed to the traditional puppetry design is certainly welcome and puts anyone’s nerves to rest concerning its integration. While I think there are some areas to smooth out in the relationship between the remaining puppetry and the literal body of Audrey II, Vicky Vox is a captivating performer and owns the stage. Marc Antolin and Jemima Rooper give an equally stage owning example of a realist blossoming relationship and Antolin will capture the audience’s hearts and become an instant favourite.
Little Shop of Horrors is running at Regent’s Open Air Theatre until the 22nd of September and I highly recommend going to see this unique and intuitive production. If you’re interested you can buy tickets here!
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