Little Shop of Horrors was my directing debut at Theatr Clwyd, coming rather unexpectedly after I’d been engaged to choreograph the company’s Christmas season of The Wizard of Oz. Oz hadn’t been a particularly happy experience for me as the director and I weren’t comfortably in harness as a team, and so when the management offered me the post of director on LSoH it was quite a surprise. (I’d anticipated being told that I wouldn’t be working for the company again, so it was an unexpectedly good surprise!)
Poster design for Little Shop with art work by me.
Looking back I can see that Little Shop was probably the best thing I ever created as a director/designer. I was given carte blanche to do the production in whichever way I wanted, a rare opportunity in the world of theatre where so often projects become prescribed by what has gone before.
I’d seen the West End production which was pretty much the show as it had been on Broadway, and I had greatly enjoyed it. Before it evolved into a musical, Little Shop of Horrors had been a 1960 film shot in two days by Roger Corman on sets he had left over from another project. It cost $30,000 and featured a very young Jack Nicholson in a minor role. The film achieved unexpected cult status, due in no small part to smart Jewish humour and an outlandish plot about a carnivorous alien creature being mistaken for a house-plant. In 1982 the film inspired a musical by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, starting out modestly as an off-Broadway production that transferred to on-Broadway in the wake of its huge success. In 1986 it came full circle to the big-screen in a lavish, lushly-orchestrated film version of the stage musical of the original bargain-basement cult film! In a fairy-tale conclusion almost unheard of in theatre-to-screen transfers, Ellen Greene, who had played the dumb but sweet Audrey in the off-Broadway original, appeared also in the Broadway version, the West End production, and finally, re-created the role for the film.
For the Clwyd production I decided to try something new, eschewing the enjoyably campy tone of what I’d seen in London. After months of research and burying myself in the text and music, I decided to look to American film noir and German Expressionism as starting points for the visual style and mood of the production. After all, the classic horror films of Universal were steeped in the imported Expressionism of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Metropolis. By referencing the visual distortions of the sets, the imaginative lighting and the heightened acting style of those films, in Little Shop I was simply tracing Hollywood ‘horror’ back to its European origins. But I wanted too the glossy chiaroscuro of film noir cinematography, and the noir-ish sense of a world full of traps for the innocent and unwary. All this was going to be a difficult conjuring trick to get onto a stage, and in preparation I assembled a trusted team to help me realise my ambitions. Terry Parr, my wardrobe supervisor on Humpty Dumpty, became costume designer to the production, and Peter Owen and Peter King, who had produced wigs for my previous two shows, put their workshop at my disposal for wig and make-up design. Audrey II (affectionately known as ‘Twoey’) … the monstrous carnivorous plant at the heart of the musical… was going to be the biggest challenge, as she/he has to sing, act and hold the stage for a large part of the action. Clearly I needed a puppet that was up to the task. Bill Talbot was my choice of fabricator for the three versions of Audrey II required. The role would be voiced by an off-stage singer/actor, but the physical presence of Audrey II would need a puppeteer of skill, invention and stamina, and for that I turned to Marie Phillips, friend and colleague from our days together as puppeteers at the Caricature Theatre. (In fact we’d known each other since we’d both been pupils at the Italia Conti stage school.) For the rest, the sets would be made in Theatr Clwyd’s excellent workshops, as would the props.
For my next post I’ll scan some of the designs of Little Shop to show here.