The Hayes Theatre Co has made a name for itself as the hub of musical theatre in Sydney; changing the landscape by bringing high quality, authentic stories with heart and relevance to local audiences. Dean Bryant and his creative team (who previously worked together on the Hayes’ critically acclaimed Sweet Charity) have come together to bring out the darkness within an already well-written and well-loved show, Little Shop of Horrors.
The musical, with score by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, is an adaptation of the original 1960 low budget black comedy. Set in a struggling flower shop, in the downtrodden, poverty-stricken part of town, employee Seymour Krelborn (Brent Hill) discovers a ‘strange and interesting plant’ that boosts business and brings fame and fortune to Seymour, who wants to impress his co-worker, the gentle and quirky Audrey (Esther Hannaford). The problem, Seymour finds, is that the plant feeds on human blood.
From the opening number, we’re immersed in the stark reality of Skid Row through clever and detailed set design (by Owen Phillips) and costuming (by Tim Chappel). Through these elements, coupled with Bryant’s sharp and grungy direction, we’re witness to the struggles for those on Skid Row, and confronted by the dull and prospect-less life it offers.
We’re first greeted by the stellar vocals of the street urchins, a 60s girl group inspired trio (Josie Lane, Chloe Zuel and Angelique Cassimatis). They bring great vocal power, tight harmonies and abundant flair to their roles, providing constant humour and entertainment. More importantly, they shed insight into the real struggles of those on the edge of society. Bryant, with the aid of Hallsworth’s tenacious choreography, emphasises the grit and roughness of these girls whilst demonstrating their dignity and perseverance. They are a grounding force throughout the show; a constant reminder of the reality of Skid Row.
The rest of the cast is similarly gripping in their roles. Tyler Coppin as Mushnik is loveable as he is calculating. Dash Kruck is entertaining and detailed in each of his featured roles. Scott Johnson as the sadistic dentist embraces the derangement and cruelty of his character, balancing these darker elements with humour and self-parody.
At the centre of this excellent cast are two wonderful leads and a well-designed puppet. Esther Hannaford does an incredible job of making Audrey, such an iconic character, her own. She brings a light and whimsical joy to the role with her great comic timing, whilst simultaneously bringing depth and truth through her wounded performance. Her relationship with Orin Scrivello, the sadistic dentist, is very affecting. Hannaford’s Audrey contains both vulnerability and strength, never letting others look down on her as a victim. Audrey’s journey of self-realisation; from self-effacing to assured, is so well earned that by the time we reach ‘Suddenly Seymour’ the audience is cheering Audrey on. Hannaford’s powerful and resonant vocal tone, with its unique quality, aids this emotional shift from moving and wistful in ‘Somewhere that’s Green’ to demonstrating her strength in ‘Suddenly Seymour’.
Brent Hill’s Seymour has great heart. Seymour is timid and reserved, constantly trying to appease those around him. Hill’s gentle demeanour is complicated by Bryant’s choice to have Audrey II (usually voiced by an off-stage actor) voiced by Brent Hill. Hill handles this challenge well, maintaining the meek characteristics of Seymour whilst reacting to the words he himself is speaking as the plant. This choice accentuates the darkness at the core of this show. No longer is the plant necessarily a standalone alien villain, but could be a comment on the darkness inside Seymour.
Audrey II comes to life thanks to Erth Visual & Physical Inc’s intricate design. By the time Audrey II reaches full size, she consumes the small space with her vibrancy, grandeur and tentacles that encroach upon the audience, giving the plant a life and character of her own. The changing voice of Audrey II is haunting. And the mechanics are fascinating to watch.
The band is vivacious and cohesive under Worboy’s musical direction, accentuated through Jeremy Silver’s well-balanced sound design, and it seems to match the size and impact of the plant perfectly.
Bryant’s Little Shop of Horrors is incredibly entertaining and a high quality production, but what truly elevates this production is how Bryant brings out the darkness and truth at the heart of this fun-filled show.