Review: Little Shop of Horrors at Liverpool Empire ****
The Liverpool Empire Youth Theatre is never less than ambitious when it comes to its big summer productions.
In recent years it’s impressed with Lin Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights, Jonathan Larson’s gritty, La Boheme-inspired Rent, and last year its young actors took on the (now unexpectedly topical) Cold War allegory Chess.
Like In The Heights and Rent, Little Shop of Horrors puts a struggling inner city community centre stage, although in this case they find themselves sharing the spotlight with a monstrous, foul-mouthed, soul-singing succulent with an insatiable lust for blood not Baby Bio.
Most people who have tried their hand at gardening – be it on a grand scale or a few pots in the yard – will have had a mishap or two.
But as horticultural horror stories go, the (tongue-in-cheek) tale of a creepy carnivorous cuckoo in the flower shop nest is right up there with Day of the Triffids. Just a lot sillier.
Little Shop of Horrors started life as one of Roger Corman’s 50s/early 60s stable of low-budget B-movie fodder.
And here, under director Natalie Flynn, the young actors seize its outrageous schlocky horror plotline - an extra-terrestrial interloper taking over the world one windowsill at a time - and deliver it with evident glee and plenty of gusto.
Oliver Bigley, in particular, has an absolute ball as sadistic, leather-clad ‘leader of the plaque’ dentist Orin Scrivello who meets an untimely end by his own hand (a useful message about the dangers of inhaling nitrous oxide) and becomes impromptu plant food.
Above: Oliver Bigley as Orin. Top: Seymour (Paulo Infante) and ensemble. Photos by Phil Tragen.
Saying that, all the young leads are excellent. Paulo Infante is charmingly likeable as the geeky Seymour and Grace Hunt chews the scenery as the irascible Mrs Mushnik, while Jessica Jane injects tenderness into her role as the object of Seymour’s affection. Her performance of the wistful Somewhere That’s Green is a lovely piece of vocal storytelling.
One of the benefits of these youth theatre shows is the strength of numbers the creative team can call on – a size of cast that commercial producers could only dream of. The only comparable professional show I can think of in recent times is Anything Goes which visited the Empire at the start of the summer.
In full voice, the young ensemble produces a terrific sound, as do the the six-strong ‘Ronettes’ who hang about the stoops of seedy Skid Row like a Greek chorus.
They’re buoyed up by a thumping 10-strong band in the pit, although sometimes the sheer volume of the accompaniment - and rather brutal amplification - can overwhelm the soloists.
But overall, the Little Shop of Horrors is an enjoyably energetic, brightly choreographed and impressively delivered slice of musical theatre.