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Organic gardening

Posted on August 28, 2018

The word “organic” isn’t often associated with musicals, but it exactly describes the history and content of Little Shop of Horrors, which runs until September 22 at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Created for a tiny off-Broadway stage in 1982, this show has roots in the science fiction tales of the 1930s and 1950s that grew into several movies, three radio series and two television series. The first movie version (1960) cost so little to produce that it’s said to have broken even during its first hour on release; fertilised by the musical’s success, the second film sprouted in 1986 from a budget of $25 million.

Known variously as a black comedy, a horror story and a dystopian fantasy, the zany narrative twines big subjects around a small frame. Seymour, a shy, awkward jerk, works in a wilting flower shop on Skid Row, pining for Audrey, his co-worker, who is pining for a picture-perfect suburban future. Tinkering with “strange and interesting plants” to unearth a path out of a dead-end life, Seymour pricks his finger (does this sound familiar?), and the strangest plant, whom he names Audrey II, blossoms from the blood that drips onto it… or her.

Audrey II grows alarmingly once Seymour agrees to satisfy her voracious appetite in exchange for the shop’s triumphant turnaround. First he feeds her with his own blood, then with human flesh by converting Audrey’s boyfriend, a sadistic dentist, into plant food. Finally the death trap wins the day, devouring Seymour, Audrey and presumably the hungry, homeless local population as well.

Alan Menken’s music and Howard Ashman’s book and clever lyrics transform human and agricultural greed, murder, poverty, sadism and misogyny into a bouquet of laughs spiked with peculiarly timely thorns. Matching them dig for dig, Lizzi Gee’s ingenious choreography takes full advantage of the 1960s musical styles and the outrageously camp atmosphere; making her theatrical debut, the American drag queen Vicky Vox plays Audrey II in green glitter lipstick and a bouffant pink wig.

The singing narrators, named Chiffon, Ronnette and Crystal after popular girl groups of the period, swing from rock and roll to rhythm and blues, underscoring their sometimes unintelligible words with snapping fingers and rolling hips. The ensemble – winos, then shop assistants – jive as they rearrange Tom Scutt’s wonderfully dingy set, gradually decorating it with the newly chic stock and tangling in a web of telephone wires as the orders pour in.

Nourished by Maria Alberg’s lively direction and the music, the dancing loops through the action like a wild vine. Irresistible as Seymour, Marc Antolin tangos nervously with Mr Mushnik, the shop’s owner, and moons over Audrey to a rhythmic mambo as she admits “I used to think you left a stench / But now I see you as a mensch.”

Naturally, Vicky Vox slinks and roars the way drag queens and carnivorous plants must, and Matt Willis, formerly a member of the pop-punk band Busted, blooms repeatedly, as the dangerous dentist and then the ambitious parasites who latch onto the shop’s thriving reputation.

The surrounding trees sway and rustle in the evening breeze while summer starts to fade, but fun flowers everywhere beneath the theatre’s hot lights.

Pictured: Scenes from the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production of Little Shop of Horrors. Photographs by Johan Persson.

Barbara Newman is dance critic for Country Life, a frequent contributor to numerous periodicals and reference works, and the author of a number of books about ballet which include a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance; a children’s book, The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories; and Grace Under Pressure.

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