Face facts: it’s “Sweeney Todd” with tendrils. The world’s only blood-and-floristry musical may derive some of its enduring popularity from Roger Corman’s B-movie horror spoof original but the real secret behind its success is there in the title. The delectable horrors on display are not in some fancy department store, they’re in a little shop: This musical is all about scale. Grow the show into Broadway or West End proportions and it looks inflated. The major reason why London’s first revival in 20 years is such fun is that cramming it onto the tiny Chocolate Factory stage puts comedy back into the musical.
The show’s major expenditure has been a wholly new design of the man-eating plant Audrey II. It combines animatronics for the smaller offshoot versions and a marvelously florid and phallic final monster of a plant whose shoots race and bloom hilariously into the auditorium at the climax of the show.
Mercifully, however, no one can accuse director Matthew White of swamping the material with his grandiose conceits. He and designer David Farley set the tone by extracting maximum pleasure from a minimum budget.
Farley’s unit set of dingy Skid Row has houses with open windows behind which sit the excellent five-piece band, belting out Alan Menken’s pitch-perfect Phil Spector and Tamla Motown-sounds. As if by magic, Farley then produces trucks that wheel on and off from almost nonexistent wing-space to create the down-in-the-mouth florist’s shop and the ghastly dental surgery.
Although the Faust-in-a-flower-shop plot doesn’t exactly major in subtext, if the cast overplays the knowing tone, the show collapses. White keeps a firm hand on his actors, who mine the script for truth, unlikely as that might sound.
Paul Keating, whose credits run from the title role in London’s “Tommy” to Michael Grandage’s “Don Carlos,” is a genuinely touching Seymour. Vocally, the role is evidently a walk in the park for him so even at the climaxes he never has to push anything. That’s true of his characterization as a whole. Sincere without being cloying, he plays the gauche, nerdy orphan extremely straight which, of course, makes him much funnier than if he went for goofy comedy.
He rarely takes his eyes off Sheridan Smith’s Audrey, and with good reason. Smith pulls back on Ellen Greene’s original trademark breathy airheadedness, replacing it with a refreshing degree of pragmatism. Teetering about in lizard-skin stilettos and a tiny leopard-print top she’s still never going to make Mensa membership, but making her slightly less of a dim bulb warms up her relationship with Seymour and ensures their scenes move more swiftly. Her more focused sense of hope also increases the pathos of her character’s hymn to suburban values, “Somewhere That’s Green.”
Her tremulousness is funny enough to point up comic lyrics, but without changing gear she also makes the song heartfelt and surprisingly upsetting. Then, just when you think you have the measure of her cherishable performance, halfway through “Suddenly Seymour” she suddenly lets rip with a knock-’em-dead belt of passion.
Jasper Britton is similarly at home whipping off biker gloves to reveal creepy rubber gloves as her sadistic lover and “leader of the plaque” dentist. He overplays his hand supplying a string of second act cameos but as pain-loving Orin he’s a comically vicious king leer with a tongue like a viper.
As ever, the action is commented upon by a girl-group Greek chorus. Katie Kerr, Melitsa Nicola and Jenny Fitzpatrick’s vocals are spot-on, punctuated by emphatic facial expressions of mock horror that complement Lynne Page’s sharply characterized choreography.
The only let-down is the flat, generalized lighting design that not only works within too bland a palette, but also fails to point up the production’s witty detail.
The sole problem facing this production is the future life that seriously beckons. What price West End transfer when small is so beautiful? If a venue large enough to make economic sense but intimate enough to keep its pleasures intact can be found, the Chocolate Factory looks certain to have spawned another winner.