Review: Showstoppers’ Little Shop of Horrors @ The Annex Theatre

Hilariously Terrifying

Planting itself as another Showstoppers must-see.

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This year’s Showstoppers small show has been the legendary Little Shop of Horrors, showing off the society’s knack for condensing an interstellar thriller to The Annex stage. This show managed to brilliantly balance the comedy in with the sweet, sad and scary to create a thoroughly enjoyable theatrical experience. 

After watching the show, I found myself wondering what it would be like for an audience member to come and see Little Shop without knowing the basic outline for the plot. All the marketing that’s ever been done for the musical shows the big, scary, otherworldly plant slap bang in the centre, but imagine if you had somehow missed that. You go in, thinking it’s going to be some standard story about a nerdy guy getting the girl and making his way out of the worst parts of the city. Maybe you’ve read the title and think it’s going to be some sort of horror/murder mystery. You’d be getting closer, but I want to speak to someone who has questioned their life decisions as they realise it’s about an alien, human-eating plant with a really outstanding singing voice. And of course the subplot with all of James Warner’s genetically identical siblings.

Little Shop of Horrors was actually made into a film in 1986, starring Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene, and that was of course based off of the musical that premiered off-Broadway in 1982 and came to the West End the following year. But that musical was actually based off of the film The Little Shop of Horrors that came out in 1960, which was in turn based off of one of several books (it seems no one can quite decide which one) and that book was in turn based off of the gre-
Look, it’s got a long history. That’s all you need to know. I think it’s very safe to say that the whole team behind Showstoppers’ addition to this history can be satisfied that they’ve done it justice.

A fateful mistake
Photo credit: SUSU Showstoppers

Arianna Anglin, Sarah Kallos and Charlotte Whysall burst the musical to life as they opened as the three street urchins Chiffon, Crystal and Ronnette, and they could’ve kept that life in the whole show by themselves if they had to. Their energy was magnificent and their vocal backing to much of the show gave the music the depth it deserved. They showed the rest of the cast up in their usually-much-more-complicated dancing and I’m sure they made choreographer Ella Samouel and her assistant choreographers Amy Bundy and Keira Gilbert very proud. It’s not a musical particularly known for being full of crazy dance numbers, but these choreographers used the moments they had to great effect, livening up the show and giving a run down flower store far more pizzazz than it probably deserved. 

Pizzazz. Pzzazz? Pzaz??
Photo credit: SUSU Showstoppers

This flower shop that formed the stage for most of the drama that happened in Little Shop was well designed, with multiple levels to add some vertical flavour to the scenes. When this most underfunded establishment started doing well, thanks to Seymour’s investment in his strange and interesting plant, construction workers came in to jazz up the set and make it feel like business was booming for Seymour’s controlling boss, Mushnik. Fear not, no construction workers were harmed or even used in the production of this musical, but instead someone has had the great idea of having members of the production team come in to change the set in front of the audience’s eyes. Personally, I thought it was a very nice touch and worked very well. As was the use of actors when their main role wasn’t needed. When Erin Craddock wasn’t singing our socks off as Audrey II and James Warner wasn’t both threatening and seducing the audience as Orin ‘The Dentist’ Scrivello, they were often seen on stage filling out the environment as some of the poor souls living out on the street, or some of those lucky few able to venture inside the ‘little shop’ itself. This was among many fantastic choices made by directors Chloe Gleeson and Katie Mitchell, and their work to bring this show to life using every morsel of talent they had access to is clear to all. What struck me most about their creation is just how creepy it could be sometimes. There were times where the general sense was ‘we’re all feeling pretty depressed because our lives are going nowhere’, and other times where it really leaned into the dark comedy of the original movie. To fit the sinister and eerie threat around all of those other emotions and have moments in the musical where it felt like the temperature dropped a couple of degrees was yet again very impressive.

Some of the credit must of course go to technical directors Rishika Malhotra and Simon Ruddock. The lighting especially created an aptly atmospheric vividness to every scene, all whilst crucially never overdoing it and detracting from the performance itself. StageSoc have once again created an impressive set and worked tirelessly to bring the performance to an impressively decked-out stage. One of the few issues the show had was a difficult audio balance at times, but it’s a difficult problem to fix given the smaller nature of the Annex stage along with the use of a live band, which, may I say, had a rather fantastic outing during the show. The music for the whole show was excellent and a credit to the whole band. Credit for the music must also of course fall to the two musical directors, the returning duo of Amy Smith and Lizzy Monds. They led the band wonderfully and had clearly inspired the cast to really go for it during those moments in the show that required the extra vocal umph. All of the songs sounded amazing, once again creating the perfect atmosphere for each scene. Whether it was a solo, a duet, or had the vocal backing of the whole cast, it was all thoroughly enjoyable to listen to.

The clever, clumsy and considerate protagonist of the show, Seymour, was played by James Taylor, who once again brought his fantastic singing voice to the Annex stage and (I’ll say it again) masterfully balanced the comedic moments with the heartfelt ones. He even leaned into some of the budgetary (and I suspect legal) restraints of the show when exclaiming about the presence of bullets where there were (thankfully) none. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of his performance was how he managed his stage presence throughout this show, showcasing both his character’s arc, and the rising desolation of his life as he is eventually left alone. Admittedly this is thanks to his own murder spree, but forgive and forget, eh? James was very careful not to take control of the stage in what would have been a very out-of-character moment at the beginning, but firmly took control of it at the end when he decided that he would write his own fate into the plant he so helped grow. Alongside him as the plant’s namesake was Audrey, played by Hermione Lester, who I felt really brought herself up to be the emotional heart of the show. Hermione’s performance of a troubled but gentle woman who dreams of happy normality was utterly heartwarming. She had a complex innocence to her that served as the touching, tender and tear-jerking grounding for the story amongst the weird and wacky events on-stage. The song ‘Somewhere That’s Green’ was one of my favourites, and Hermione’s vocal and emotional performance of this bittersweet moment was beautiful as she sang about her dreams to the fiery street urchin trio. She made an excellently well defined character for Audrey and reminded me just how important this hopeless-hopeful character is.

Just a dream
Photo credit: SUSU Showstoppers

Mushnik has, and I hope no one will argue with me on this one, quite a different role in this musical. Dastardly, desperate and rather disagreeable, Tom Bradford really brought forth the believability of a character who decides adopting a son will save his shop. Tom’s accent and characterisation of this money-loving, mildly-insane man was wonderful. He scuttled around the stage like someone who hasn’t quite worked out how their knees work and looked like he was about to throw the front desk at Seymour during most of the production. In fact, his genuine hurt and confusion at learning of Seymour’s crimes caught me so off guard it was alarmingly distressing to see Mushnik so genuinely… distressed at the idea of Seymour’s wrongdoing. This didn’t seem like a man predisposed to normal emotions, and the brilliantly choreographed ‘Mushnik And Son’ really hit home his mild insanity as he seemed to try to hypnotise Seymour into adoption. But there was nothing mild about the insanity of James Warner’s Dentist. I’ve talked about clever blends of comedy and creepiness or heartwarming moments, but James’ blend of the Dentist’s almost imbecilic lack of awareness and the fear that he imposed on the other characters in the show was magnificent. His gleeful addiction to sadism and his casual disregard of even 1960s health and safety standards was as entertaining as his addiction to nitrous oxide. To credit James for a brilliantly entertaining performance as the Dentist would be understandable, and undervaluing the rest of his characters, as James would later return to the stage to multirole investors looking to make a profit from Seymour and his plant. James flitted between these characters effortlessly, with each one as eccentric, charming, and hilarious as the last. A real showcase of James’ vocal and acting talent. We’re not supposed to have our favourites, but my favourite James Warner role was Edna Mode.

It wasn’t a real plant?!
Photo credit:
SUSU Showstoppers

As Arianna, Sarah and Charlotte lulled us to the conclusion of the musical with a disturbing warning and some clockwork choreography, I thought back again on what a ridiculous musical this would be to someone going in blind. I think Little Shop of Horrors might be the musical I’ve seen the most productions of, and yet I was still very much entertained by the singing, dancing, acting, and the rather fantastic giant plant puppet that was brought on stage to eat people. The smaller plant puppet was rather good too, to tell the truth. To pull off something this strange and make sure it doesn’t fall flat, you really have to have a wealth of talented people giving their all and not letting a single line, note, kick, prop or flash fall flat. Everyone involved should be very proud of this charming, creepy and thoroughly amusing show.

You can keep up to date with the University of Southampton’s Showstoppers’ performances here.


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