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Review: Little Shop of Horrors at Octagon Theatre is a ‘fun and camp delight’

Little Shop of Horrors at the Octagon Theatre is full of whimsical charm
Little Shop of Horrors Octagon Theatre

Do you remember that total eclipse of the sun about a week ago? It is sure to pale in comparison to Little Shop of Horrors at the Octagon Theatre!

For the residents of Skid Row, each passing day is a long hard slog, filled with bed bugs and hopheads and forgotten so and so’s.

One such resident is the downtrodden and dejected botanist Seymour Krelborn, who spends his days tending to the stock of Mr Mushnik’s Flower Shop, hoping to coax a bloom out of a Begonia or a seedling from a Sunflower until he can one day escape Skid Row with his beloved Audrey, the darling shop assistant who’s only wish is to be away from her checkered past.

Fortunes soon change, however, when Seymour encounters an interesting and unusual plant. Soon, customers are flocking to the florists to catch a glimpse of the hot commodity (emphasis on ‘odd’). Seymour soon struggles to meet the overwhelming demand all while satisfying the plant’s atypical craving.

One thing is for sure, life on Skid Row will never be the same again.

Little Shop of Horrors at the Octagon Theatre

Little Shop of Horrors Octagon Theatre

Little Shop of Horrors feels like the love child of a touching domestic soap opera and a surreal sci-fi epic.

As incongruous as these two genres may sound, the production at The Octagon Theatre, directed by Lotte Wakeham, manages to marry the two perfectly.

There is no Little Shop of Horrors without Audrey II, it is inarguably the most iconic role in the entire musical and one of the most iconic roles in musical theatre as a whole.

The design of the pernicious plant is truly exceptional and a true highlight. Michael Fowkes and Katie Duxbury have done an extraordinary job.

It maintains the whimsical charm of the original puppet while still being imposing and immediately recognisable. It is easily the most memorable and impressive part of the whole performance.

The challenges of playing an… alien plant?

While the challenge of playing an alien plant with a thirst for blood may be too much for some, Anton Stephans nails it as the voice of Audrey II.

At once alluring and commanding, he speaks with such gravitas it is easy to forget the hilarity of a ginormous alien plant and feel genuinely a bit scared. He sings with a deep, rich baritone that transfixes the audience and steals each scene.

Puppeteering Audrey II seems like a mammoth task for the audience so I can only imagine how it feels to do it. Matthew Heywood seems to manage just fine!

Even when silent, Audrey II is imbued with so much character, each movement is in perfect time and yet still natural. It is not hard to believe that this is a real, alive creature that could strike at any moment.

Even when Audrey II is stationary, Heywood works in such a way that you do not want to stop looking, lest one of the many tendrils reaches out to grab you.

Oliver Mawdsley plays Seymour with an endearing and terminal awkwardness that perfectly captures his kind heart and almost painful shyness. He completely embodies Seymour from the moment he steps on stage.

His understanding of the character shines through in his brilliant physicality. Every mannerism is so exactly right that it must have taken hours to master, and yet it looks effortless. Mawdsley’s voice is powerful and works very well during both solos and group performances.

Audrey is perhaps the most complex character in the show. Laura Jane Matthewson’s portrayal is delightful and heartbreakingly tender.

As she laments about the life she yearns for away from Skid Row, you cannot help but root for her. Although Audrey may technically be a damsel in distress, Matthewson makes her much more. Her voice is polished and clear and she seems to hit the high notes with no real effort.

Chardai Shaw, Janna May and Zweyla Mitchell Dos Santos play Renette, Chiffon and Siobhan respectively.

They serve as an entry point for the audience often explaining events or providing context. The trio work very well together and are believable as a friend group. Although the characters themselves are quite similar, each actress’ performance makes them distinct and memorable.

As the eternally grumpy and profit-hungry shop owner Mr Mushnik, Andrew Whitehead’s performance is really strong. The character is fully formed from his very first scene.

Whitehead is in command of the stage and seems confident and comfortable in the role.

Matthew Ganley plays the odious Dr. Orion Scrivello D.D.S, – Audrey’s sadistic boyfriend- like a cat in heat. He exists to be loathed by the audience and yet Ganley is such an adept comedic performer he was getting the most laughs. His exaggerated performance encourages the audience to mock him as opposed to fear him. He manages to be a convincing villain and a great caricature at the same time. His multiple roles prove that he is a strong and versatile performer.

His exaggerated performance encourages the audience to mock him as opposed to fear him. He manages to be a convincing villain and a great caricature at the same time. His multiple roles prove that he is a strong and versatile performer.

In this production, a portion of the band is made up of the actors themselves. Chiefly Chardai Shaw, Janna May, Zweyla Mitchell Dos Santos and Matthew Ganley. This is a really impressive and engaging element of the production.

Wonderful musical direction by Livi Van Warmelo

Originally composed by Alan Menkin and written by Howard Ashman, the musical direction by Livi Van Warmelo in this production maintains the high standard audiences will expect.

It could be argued that Skid Row is as much of a character in Little Shop as Seymour or Audrey, and in this production, that rings especially true.

Designed by TK Hay, the set perfectly captures the specific blend of kitschy squalor necessary to transport audiences to this particular 1960s New York neighbourhood.

From the well-worn shop floor of Mr Mushnik’s or the surreal clinical retrofuturism of Orin’s dentist’s office, every detail adds texture to the world created on stage.

Because Hay’s set is so versatile, there are few significant set changes, just props added or removed to indicate a change of scene.

Not only is this efficient for the cast and crew, but it adds to the feeling that Skid Row is inescapable and inevitable for these characters. It is as much a state of mind as a setting.

TK Hay’s costume design

The costumes (designed by TK Hay) are simple but effective, each conveying an aspect of the character wearing them.

For example, when the show begins, Seymour is dressed as the archetypal nerd: shirt, vest and bow tie. He is hopelessly behind the times even for 1960. This attention to detail is present throughout the production and adds to the audience’s immersion.

I appreciate that when one actor plays multiple roles, it can be difficult to make each distinct enough for the audience to differentiate, especially when some are essentially walk-on parts.

However, I’m not sure a cheap fat suit gag and a man in drag as the punchline are the best ways to go about it. Just because Little Shop is set in the 1960’s, that doesn’t mean the jokes have to be too.

Tickets for Little Shop of Horrors at the Octagon Theatre

Little Shop of Horrors is two and a half hours of fun. It is camp and silly but still has genuine stakes and moments of emotion.

This production proves that, even 30+ years after the original off Broadway run, audiences are still hungry for more.

Little Shop of Horrors is at Octagon Theatre until Saturday 18th May and tickets can be purchased here

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