Little Shop of Horrors – Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park
Regent’s Park this year is playing a blinder. The charming production of As You Like It has given way to an equally playful and equally successful production of something very different. The Howard Ashman/Alan Menken fantasy musical Little Shop of Horrors, adapted in 1982 from a cult film, had hit runs in both London and New York where it ran for five years. Tragically, Ashman died of AIDs at the age of 40 but not before he and his partner had written a number of stage and screen musicals for Disney including The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.
In a dreadful flower shop on Skid Row, a nebbish, Seymour, invents a plant which saves the business but grows and grows until it turns into a monster which demands humans for lunch. Audrey Two, named after Audrey, Seymour’s great love, his co-worker in the flower shop, only flourishes when fed blood. But Audrey One has a boyfriend, an evil dentist called Orin (a wonderful comic performance from Matt Willis) who treats her badly. Seymour knows how he can get rid of Orin and feed Audrey Two with one stroke.
Fortunately for us, Audrey Two isn’t satisfied with just one dentist.
An inspired idea is to have the plant, usually a puppet, played by drag queen Vicky Vox who embodies the murderous plant with an exuberance bordering on madness. If a plant can be “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”, that’s Audrey Two, as wicked and glamorous as greenery can be. What’s this? Did I just fall in love with a plant?
It doesn’t hurt that the doo-wop score is bursting with great songs, and lots of in-jokes such as calling the street people who serve as a sort of Greek chorus to comment on the action after girl groups of the 1960s, Chiffon, Ronette, and Crystal. Tom Scutt’s imaginative designs are the last word in plant chic.
Perhaps the secret of Little Shop is its unpretentiousness. It started life as a little horror movie made on less than a shoe-string. Its first performances as a stage show were in a tiny upstairs room on Fifth Avenue that wasn’t even a theatre, so even when it became clear that it was turning into pure theatrical gold, it never took on the mantle of a long-running major musical, even though it was. Little Shop of Horrors is terrific. It’s funny, lively, and beautifully rethought for its current incarnation among the leafy surroundings of the park.
Aristocrats – Donmar Warehouse
It has been so fine to see a spate of revivals of Brian Friel plays. The National had Translations, not so long ago the Almeida did The Faith Healer, and now the Donmar is rediscovering Aristocrats. I am still furious with Friel for dying in 2015 as I always wanted and expected more and more plays from him. For me, Friel has always been right up there with Arthur Miller for reflecting a big world in a small picture. In Aristocrats, the world is an Irish country house, one of those large estates that became unsustainable after the Great Famine, when the servants emigrated to America, when the great families had forgotten who they were, and the land would no longer support them.
As in so many Friel, indeed Irish plays, this is a motherless family with an indifferent or tyrannical father, ruling the household from his bed, demanding all the oxygen in the house. One daughter has stayed home to take care of him while the other siblings, three more girls, one boy, are scattered. One daughter has become a nun and her voice can be heard in cassette tape recordings from Africa. Another, a talented pianist whose musical education was denied by Father, has some ill-defined mental illness and plans soon to marry a much older man she doesn’t love. There’s the one who married the wrong man and lives with him in London and there’s Casimir, the only brother, who is more than a bit odd and who boasts of a possibly non-existent wife and three children in Germany. Aristocrats is, like so many Irish plays, about a fragmented family in a fragmenting country. The house is falling down, the family is disintegrating along with it, Ireland is changing, and these kind of ‘big house’ upper class aristocrats who grew up in a hermetically sealed perfect country life, have no place in the increasingly urban and industrialised society that their country has become. Adjusting to the world as it is is not an option.
Lyndsey Turner’s spare production is played out on Es Devlin’s empty stage. The actors, all excellent, especially the superb David Dawson as the increasingly strange brother Casimir, sit in view at the back of the stage when they’re not in the scene and the lack of sets or props means they have to mime their actions. For me this fashionable post-modern approach imposes an unnecessary distance between them and us. It forces us to imagine not only what is going on between the characters but also the effect of their crumbling environment which is so central to understanding the play. As a result, although this is a favourite play of mine, I never became absorbed by these very absorbing people as I have in previous productions. Their very distance from one another gave the audience a distance from them that I suspect Brian Friel never intended.
Swan Lake- London Coliseum
The Coli was packed this week for the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre’s traditional performance of the world’s most popular ballet. Petipa would have been proud, his choreography was faithfully, one could almost say slavishly, adhered to. Every lift, every pirouette, every arabesque was exactly where you expected it to be and one couldn’t expect more perfect synchrony from a corps de ballet if we were only looking at two dancers in a mirror instead of 30 or more perfectly aligned heads and toes.
In pole position as Odette/Odile was the company’s prima ballerina, Irina Kolesnikova, regal and technically proficient, if rather on the bloodless side except for a somewhat creepy grin she employs in the second act when she’s being the evil Odile. Prince Siegfried was Bolshoi soloist Denis Rodkin who did a good job of being scaffolding for Odette and got his jumps in the right places and one can’t expect more from a Siegfried unless you’ve got a Baryshnikov or a Nureyev and alas….
There is a fatal lack of energy here, it’s all a bit polite if totally accurate, but It would help to raise the excitement if the corps didn’t look so terminally bored and if the entire company had some fire to add to their commitment to do it exactly as it has always been done.
The ENO orchestra did not play well under the St Petersburg conductor but whether that was their fault or his was unclear. What he did do was to slow everything down by taking long gaps between every musical phrase and the cast didn’t help by taking unnecessary bows after each variation or scene. It seemed the poor things felt starved for attention, so long did they milk each bow. This served the double purpose of making the drama difficult to follow as they were continually coming out of character to curtsey, and slowing the overall length of the ballet.
Look, it’s not the Bolshoi, not the Maryinsky , not a world class company by any standards but it is efficient and its Swan Lake gave a lot of pleasure to the many little girls in the Coliseum audience. I rather admire the cheeky admission of its founder, a former St Petersburg travel agent, that he formed the company to serve the tourists who couldn’t get tickets to the Kirov. Presumably, he was hoping they couldn’t tell the difference.
The Rise and Fall of Little Voice – Park Theatre
Some of you may remember that in 1992 playwright Jim Cartwright discovered that Jane Horrocks, who was in one of his plays, had an extraordinary trick. She could sing in the voice of virtually any popular singer – Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Dusty Springfield, Shirley Bassey - so precisely and accurately that you couldn’t tell her from the real thing. Apparently, she’d been doing it since childhood and assumed everybody could reproduce whatever they heard the way she could. So extraordinary was this gift that Cartwright wrote a play to showcase it and her, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. I have never forgotten seeing Little Voice for the first time and being convinced that she was using recordings. It didn’t seem possible that someone was singing live but she was.
There is more to it than the ‘trick’. It’s a sometimes very funny, sometimes very serious play about the relationship between a mother and daughter. In the revival now at the Park, mother and daughter are played by an actual mother and daughter, Sally George and Rafaella Hutchinson. As the mother’s exploitative boyfriend and the daughter’s gentle rescuer, Kevin McMonagle and Linford Johnson add some much need context.
But it is that other-worldly ‘trick’ that you remember.
Ruth Leon is a writer and critic specialising in music and theatre.