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West End press night audiences are guaranteed to be vocal and enthusiastic, but I cannot recall the last time I heard such a crowd go so comprehensively ape. On this occasion, too, it is largely deserved. No-one’s life will be changed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s 1982 musical, but as feelgood stage experiences go, it’s hard to surpass.
Feelgood? A show with violence, torture, dismemberment and murder, about an evil plant’s plan “essentially, to eat Cleveland”? Of course, for Menken and Ashman’s show is a loving tribute to two genres of the late 1950s and early 60s: the alien- threat sci-fi movie (the characters and plot come from an undistinguished Roger Corman picture of 1960) and classic pre-Beatles pop, especially that of girl groups (the backing trio are even named Chiffon, Crystal and Ronette, respectively). Menken’s score is spot-on, and Ashman’s book and lyrics nip playfully at the naivety of those far-off days without scorning it . . . unlike the 1986 movie of the musical, whose happy ending the stage show wisely eschews.
The star of the show is the plant Audrey II; designed by David Farley, manipulated by Andy Heath and voiced by Mike McShane, this oddly phallic vegetable grows from about six inches until she bursts the limits of the stage and her tendrils fly into the auditorium. Paul Keating’s nebbish florist shop assistant, Seymour, is no match for her. Keating suppresses his natural presence for the role, dorking and dweebing for all he’s worth.
As his beloved Audrey (after whom he names the plant), Sheridan Smith is simply unbeatable. With her Brooklyn squeak, trashy wardrobe and achingly modest dreams, she’s a dollop of fifties bubblegum that you want to eat right up, except that the plant beats you to it. Her sadistic dentist boyfriend is played by Alistair McGowan with less weird menace than Jasper Britton in this production’s premiere last Christmas at the Menier Chocolate Factory; however, McGowan brings more variety to his series of quick-change Act Two cameos. Matthew White’s production was a natural for a West End transfer, and after that crowd’s reaction, I wouldn’t be taking any early bookings for other gigs if I were in the cast.
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