When a third of the Oxford Playhouse's stage by degrees comes to be annexed by an emerald-green hybrid of a venus fly-trap, a basking shark and a ripe avocado, and when members of the cast are successively swallowed up in its slavering mouth, never to be seen again this side of the Garden of Paradise, it's odds-on that Ashman and Menken's 1986 Little Shop of Horrors is in town. The enabler is Ambriel Productions, and the ambition of the venture - and ambitious it is despite a cast numbering a mere eight – and possibly the proven pedigree of a number of cast and crew have landed them one of the coveted Playhouse student slots.
This is the tale of Seymour, a meek florist's assistant, who pines for lovely but modest colleague Audrey, and is aided by a mutant plant he names Audrey II whose diet runs only to human flesh and blood. This eighth wonder of the world makes a mint of money for the shop owner and and helps Seymour in his cherished plan to get the girl and deal with her boyfriend while discovering the downside of being lured away from the path of righteousness. The plot need not detain the rational mind, and the domestic violence theme is, if not precisely swept under the carpet, then resolved by a quasi-deus ex machina in the form of Audrey II.
So what we have here is a package of sheer entertainment. Set designer Molly Nickson has come up trumps with a suitably tacky set of garish colours, PVC curtains and enough gladioli, gerbera daisies and perpetual carnations to fill Kew Gardens, while a high-coloured backdrop of post-art deco city streets gave a bit of spatial depth and context to the shop. The catchy if not super-memorable tunes are delivered with panache and some variety; thus the keynote 'Skid Row (Downtown)' was not just belted out but conveyed a touch of real pathos in the references to the souring of the American dream. And that Audrey II – oh wow! Starting life as a demure pot plant, before you could water your pansies it had ballooned into a glowering monster, a triumph of practical design, swallowing down its supper with lip-smacking chutzpah. Hats off to the technical crew!
The overall bubbling success of the show does not imply perfection. I saw the dress rehearsal and no doubt the minor flaws I mention here will be ironed out as the week goes on. We kicked off with the strong prologue song 'Little Shop of Horrors' from street urchin chorus-of-three Crystal (Ela Portnoy, whom I remember shining in London Road in February), Chiffon (Natalie Lauren) and Ronnette (Francesca Amewudah-Rivers) jiggy-dancing merrily and singing strongly; and they were a big asset from first to last. But then as Mushnik Florists readies itself for the new working day, the scene-setting exposition was a touch laboured and a few cues sluggish. It was noticeable how when biker-dentist Orin (a wannabe James Dean, kitted out perfectly by costume designer Marcus Knight-Adams) popped up, a jolt of energy arrived with him, and not just deriving from the raucousness of his voice. Similarly, when Amelia Gabriel took on the solo spot in 'Suddenly, Seymour' and cleverly sang just in front of and then just after the beat, the impact of the song intensified. I also thought they'd missed a trick with the choice of speaking voice for Audrey II (Jess Bollands); not quite kooky enough. But her singing voice was pitched halfway between a gravelly Nina Simone and a catchy, mezzo Aretha Franklin – nice!
Producer Imogen Howarth told me the concept had been cogitating for the best part of 12 months and the actors have been hard at it for a month beforehand, and their slick movement onstage has been expertly organised by director Jonny Wiles. In the difficult part of the pining, then desperate Seymour, James Tibbles' light tenor voice suits the role like a glove and he has plenty of quiet authority. Laurence Belcher brought a brash brutality to the role of Audrey's boyfriend, frenzied as the dentist, then oily later as the salesman. Splenetic energy, variety of gesture and a big voice – terrific! Amelia Gabriel, last seen in March as a tragic Anna Karenina, demonstrates her outstanding, all-round talent: mincing on high heels, convincingly worried of face and voice. Ms Gabriel can act, dance and move and – best of all – can sing and grin at one and the same time! When she disappeared, leaving behind only her pink slippers, I nearly wept!
If you're looking for a night out as an antidote to the Brexit blues and election sound-bites, then it's waiting to swallow you up at the Playhouse, a riot of colour, vibes and queasy fun.