By Charlotte West
Little Shop of Horrors is not only a cult favourite amongst musical theatre fans, but also a wise choice of musical for Foot of the Hill Theatre Company, given the restrictions they faced in terms of venue and resources. Although a modest musical with no chorus and a limited orchestra, it is a personal favourite of mine. The score marked an important moment in musical theatre history, given that its adaptation into a movie-musical was the driving force for Alan Menken (read; DISNEY) to write film soundtracks, but also its 60s doo-wop/Motown/Hairspray-esque charm is undeniably catchy. In light of this, I was intrigued as to what FHTC had in store for us, and it is perhaps my deep-held love for the OST of this show, and the deviation of this particular production from that score, which left me feeling somewhat disappointed.
From the offset, it has to be noted that sound and technical issues played a part in preventing the show from really resonating, or indeed even being understood by the audience at times. Pip Orchard’s attempts to show the progression of Seymour’s character from nerdy down-and-out orphan of Skid Row to murderous plant breeder who will do anything to win the affections of Audrey were commendable. However, in his first few numbers, when Seymour is portrayed as being particularly quiet and unassuming, parts of the plot – such as how he acquired the plant, Audrey II – were entirely missed by the audience as they simply could not be heard. Perhaps some of this quiet characterisation could be traded off with audibility to enhance the impact of earlier scenes. Another character that is essential in underpinning the energy of the show but was largely lost on the audience was Audrey II, as voiced by Peter Galea. Although some impressive vocal riffs could be heard at times, the booming bluesy bass which defines this character was lost as the backstage singing was hardly conveyed to the audience.
As Kimran Rana points out in her Director’s Note, this production does not “take itself too seriously.” In the spirit of fun-loving college theatre, this is something I could abide, if not for the lack of comedy or, at the very least, enthusiasm in some parts of the show. This was particularly evident in Chloe Blakesley’s portrayal of Audrey. Blakesley has a beautiful singing voice with a lot of warmth of tone, and at various parts, in the show, she was able to bring some lovely characterisation to the role. However, this isn’t enough to portray the quirky, ditzy and lovable Audrey. Although I should refrain from drawing comparisons between this version of Audrey and the inimitable Ellen Greene, this portrayal turned Audrey into a somewhat pitiable character. This was particularly noteworthy in “Suddenly Seymour” which was sung in a vocally sound way but was not used as an opportunity to showcase any talents Blakesley may harbour as a singing actress.
Similarly disappointing was Mushnik (as played by Jonathan Vautrey), whose attempts at an accent were laudable. However, this often made it difficult to understand what was being said, and given that Mushnik is a less vocally demanding role, the comedy of the character was greatly lost. This was particularly notable in numbers such as “Mushnik and Son,” where some issues could be written off as technical problems – the only audible part of the song was the overdramatic and elongated vocal riff – hence the moment lost its comedy, and Vautrey’s movement and interactions onstage appeared more awkward than humorous.
Despite these flaws, there were certainly some stand out performances which shone throughout the show. Rory McNeilage excelled in his role as Orin, as he appeared capable of vocalising clearly despite the evident sound issues, and was able to portray multiple other characters in quick succession, to entertaining effect. Credit should also be given to the Ronnette’s – Hannah Ambrose, Juliane Thorbjørnsen, Stacey Cockram – who were vocally very sound and helped situate the production within its 1960s setting. Their harmonies were impressive, while their ongoing presence and well-timed choreography underpinned the show.
Little Shop’s choreographer, Tamzin Kerslake, should be credited with working well within the limited space, as choreography was particularly well-executed for the most part. Its creatives and particularly the plant construction team succeeded in creating multiple versions of Audrey II at each stage, which were impressive.
Despite being a flawed performance which was marred with technical difficulties, overall the spirit of the show was captured, and these comments should not perturb those who were involved in bringing it to life. The team effort and enjoyment which has evidently arisen from the production of Little Shop of Horrors cannot be undermined, and in fact were largely what made the experience more enjoyable for the audience.
‘Little Shop of Horrors’ was performed in St Mary’s College Dining Hall from Tuesday, 20th June until Wednesday, 21st June at 20:30.
Photograph: Foot of the Hill Theatre Company