Manchester Musical Youth @ The Z-Arts Centre, Manchester
Little Shop of Horrors by Manchester Musical Youth @ The Z-Arts Centre, Manchester
Words simply cannot do full justice for this amazing and talented group of young performers. Aged, I would imagine from about 10 – 20 years, this group, despite being both amateur and youths, are just about as good as you are going to get!
Last year I was lucky enough to see their production of Jeckyll and Hyde, and was absolutely blown away then, and couldn’t wait to see them again. Once again, I left the theatre wondering when I would be able to watch them perform again!
Little Shop Of Horrors is something of a cult Musical, and a complete and shameless Mickey-take of the trend in the late 1950s for Hollywood to produce low budget horror films, affectionately categorised as B-Movies. In the case of this particular story, we see Mushnik, owner of a flower shop in a run-down, poor and forgotten NY neighbourhood, and his two hapless employees. the rather ditzy tart-with-a-heart, Audrey, and the clumsy, myopic and downtrodden Seymour. Their fortunes are certain… they are going nowhere and the shop is closing up for good… that is until Seymour shows his employer a ‘strange and unusual’ plant that he has been cultivating. This plant, now nicknamed Audrey 2, is the shop’s and Seymour’s saviour. It brings them fame and fortune in untold measure. But all this comes at a price, a very heavy price indeed. The plant thrives off fresh human blood. At first this doesn’t cause any concern as Seymour quite happily adds anaemic to his list of complaints, but then, the fates turn against them and he finds himself feeding the plant with Audrey’s dead dentist boyfriend, and then with Mushnik, and before long even Audrey falls foul of the plant’s blood lust. If all of this sounds a little dark and macabre, don’t panic, it’s all very tongue-in-cheek and sent up in the best possible taste! And with some fantastic Musical numbers, it can’t fail to be a hit!
The set for this production was a single composite affair showing Mushnik’s flower shop interior upstage centre, and door stage left centre, with the street and main acting area in front of this. Either side were flats of end gable two storey houses with open balconies. It worked surprisingly well; except for the flower shop door, which seemed to have a mind of its own, as if it too, were some alien life form yet undiscovered! The cast coped with this adroitly however and it didn’t interfere with our enjoyment.
This particular show opened in true 1950’s B-Movie style as two perfectly costumed usherettes tell us to behave ourselves, whilst they mischievously misbehave themselves! And on with the show!
The quality of the acting and singing, and even the dancing – although there really wasn’t that much choreography, it mostly would come under the banner of ‘movement’ – were all superb.
The show opens with a full chorus number, and the cast just kept coming and coming! I was beginning to wonder just how many chorus they would be able to fit on the stage… and for a Musical that traditionally doesn’t use a chorus, this is no mean feat!
One thing I really liked, and which worked wonderfully was the doubling up of The Ronettes. In the Musical, The Ronettes are a black pop trio in the style of The Three Degrees and the like, and are the commentators and ‘narrators’ in this show, as they sing the storyline and offer their own personal feelings to what is happening. In this production however, the Ronettes were doubled. Three of the older girls took on the majority of the singing, whilst three of the younger girls took on most of the acting. It was a brainwave and it worked superbly. Not only that all six of these girls were utterly fantastic. The three singing Ronettes were Ellie McLoughlin, Caroline Collet and Eliza Nelson. And my-oh-my how they could sing. I especially loved the extemporisations and bluesy voice of Miss McLoughlin. And the three young ingenue actresses were Eva Rowan, Caroline Featherstone and Bethany Bangbala. Three names to watch out for in the future!
The principals were equally stunning. Sam Bate was a weedy and nerdy Seymour, and pitched his character just right. His transition from underdog to celebrity and his horror at the situation he finds himself in, the moments of self-righteousness and lack of confidence; they were all beautifully measured. What a lovely voice he had too. Just be very careful – the baseball cap hid the eyes at times and when looking down, hid the whole face.
Playing opposite him was the absolute best interpretation of the role of Audrey I have ever seen, and I am not joking. Normally this role is hammed up beyond credibility, and with a ridiculous high pitch squeaky voice to boot. Normally the actress playing this part is drainpipe thin and tall, normally the actress playing this part elicits absolutely no sympathy at all from her constant beatings from Orin, and her eventual consummation by the plant. However none of this applies to actress Kathryn Stephenson. She proved beyond doubt that Audrey was a real and empathetic person who has accepted her situation and lot in life thinking that that is where she will forever stay. She doesn’t really love her boyfriend but cannot leave him, and thinks herself unworthy. She almost had me crying – and I NEVER cry! Absolutely incredible! Her rendition of ‘Somewhere That’s Green’ and her part in ‘Suddenly Seymour’ were just sung to perfection and very emotive.
Talking of Orin, then he is the sadistic leather-clad motorbike fanatic who uses laughing gas on himself to increase his own pleasure when drilling his patients’ teeth, and was played in this production with vim and vigour by Joel Pendleton. Despite his inexperience and having Steve Martin’s definitive performance always in the shadows, his own interpretation was very good indeed and no-one felt sorry for him – quite correctly.
The plant, Audrey 2, was manipulated by a member of the company, Joe Morgan, and voiced by Chris Wagstaffe. Who, after the curtain calls, came onto stage dressed all in green (complete with green beard!) and lead the whole company in the song that runs through the final credits of the film. It’s not part of the stage show, but to have him do this at the end was yet another brainwave and a lovely idea. Well done!
Special mention should be given here too to the Wino, David Beeby, who spends the entire show drunk and sitting on a dustbin watching the world pass him by making a few comments along the way. A lovely cameo which is often neglected, but played here with just the right amount of inebriation! Also, credit most certainly needs to be given to two young girls ( not mentioned in the programme ) who enter Mushnik’s shop to see ‘the strange and unusual plant’ and buy a hundred dollar’s worth of roses. Dressed as French Resistance twins, their vocal delivery and comedic timing was a joy!
I am leaving the role of Mushnik until last for a reason. It was sadly the only character of which I have anything negative to say. He really tried hard, and that, I think, was his downfall. I really feel he should understand the concept that less is most definitely more, and he was overacting and overreacting throughout. His name is also Mushnik – a very Jewish name and corruption of Muschle + beatnik – and with the Musical Director giving the song ‘Mushnik And Son’ a distinctive Yiddish twist and allowing the actor to extemporise around the Yiddish rhythms, he definitely and unquestionably needed to be Jewish; and sadly he wasn’t. Aiden Burgess tried so very hard and was indeed a powerful performer with great personality, that much was clear. What he lacked was firm direction to point him in the right direction for his character.
The Musical direction, by Kimberley Holden was lovely. As already mentioned with Mushnik and Son, there were examples of her own interpretations of the songs all the way through and every single one was pure genius, fitting the style of music to each principal’s own vocal style and capabilities. The band played excellently, and if there were any wrong notes, I didn’t hear them!
The whole production was directed by Dan Jarvis, and although I didn’t agree with a couple of his choices or ideas, it was still solidly, sensibly and well directed. The one thing that I am still uncertain about, and still have mixed feelings towards is the chorus becoming plant zombies. The whole of the first act was directed in a very naturalistic style, and so to see the chorus enter with green leaves and twigs painted on their faces and to start acting like plant zombies just simply jarred. It was a very interesting and brave idea, and something I certainly haven’t seen before. I certainly understand the idea and the interpretation, but I’m still not certain it worked. The plant was an alien life form which thrived off fresh human blood. Zombies are human undead. The two don’t relate in any way. I liked it, and the chorus did it extremely well, yet despite reading the idea behind this and the parallels drawn up in your defence, I’m just not sure of its place in the Musical, and as such whether or not it worked.
However in spite of everything, this production of Little Shop Of Horrors by Manchester Musical Youth takes second place in my list of personal all-time favourite performances. This is something of which you should all be incredibly proud, since my number one all-time favourite is an adult professional production!
Massive congratulations to you all, and I can’t wait to see you all again in July when you will perform Les Miserables; in the meantime, whatever you do – don’t feed the plants!
Reviewer – Alastair MacDougall
on – 25/2/16