Freaky fable is full of bite

Biting satire: Alan Committie as Seymour Kelbourn in The Little Shop of Horrors. (Photos: Pat Bromilow-Downing)

Biting satire: Alan Committie as Seymour Kelbourn in The Little Shop of Horrors. (Photos: Pat Bromilow-Downing)

The original film The Little Shop of Horrors was first written by whirlwind scriptwriter Charles B Griffith, who famously wrote movies in one or two days. Raised in a radio family, he “didn’t know that you were supposed to take a long time to write a film script”. Many of his scripts were produced by “B-Movie King” Roger Corman, with schlock titles such as Attack of the Crab Monsters, Creature from the Haunted Sea, Barbarella and Death Race 2000.

Corman was no slouch himself, matching his writers’ speed by shooting these low-budget flicks in a matter of days for the drive-in cinema audience.
Corman was so prolific, on occasion he produced two films at the same time, on the same sets, with the same cast, to maximise budgets.

The results of these breakneck-speed productions vary between the good, the bad and the so-bad-it’s-good. But the tone of the films, and Griffith’s writing style, fitted the low-art form, adding a subversive edge.

Their low-cost monster movies stand in opposition to the “Red Scare” films of 1950s Cold War America, where science fiction and spy films were designed to instil a fear of communism in the population.

The 1960 The Little Shop of Horrors is a comedy horror, but the monster doesn’t represent Soviet infiltration or an alien collective attacking American individualism. The monster, a man-eating Venus flytrap, stands for that evil that truly infiltrates the soul of man: the spirit of capitalism.

Blooming killer: The original The Little Shop of Horrors film was directed by ‘B-Movie King’ Roger Corman

The theme was distilled further by writer Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken in their 1982 adaptation as a theatre musical. They sharpened the satire with songs to the point where it now plays like West Side Story meets Jack and the Beanstalk by way of Brecht.

The staff of Mushnik’s Florist on Skid Row are about to lose their jobs because there is no business. That is until Seymour Krelborn, a clumsy orphan who works for Mr Mushnik, shows him the “strange and interesting new plant” that he bought from an old Chinese man after a total eclipse of the sun.

Krelborn names the plant Audrey 2 after his curvy co-worker, whose boyfriend, a sadistic dentist, beats her up regularly (in the original film Jack Nicholson chews the scenery as a masochist visiting the dentist’s chair). Audrey 2 attracts the public’s fascination, becomes a phenomenon, and turns the fortunes of Mushnik’s Florist around.

With business booming and his libido blooming, only Krelborn knows the terrible secret; the plant feeds on human blood. Trapped into a Faustian bargain for success by a singing shrub, his green fingers become red fingers and Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism is played out for us as a farce.

The audience gets to “see more” than Krelborn when he’s planted in mass-media society as a commodity himself, and this freaky fable of commerce reaches the same ideological deadlock we are unable to get past in the exploitative world system today.

Frank Oz, of Muppet Show and Star Wars “Yoda” fame, adapted the musical back to film in 1986 but was forced to change the bizarre ending when studio test audiences gave it a green-thumbs down. The irony there is that this allegory is also a product.

But the Pieter Toerien KickstArt production, like the Audrey 2 plant, has teeth. Director Steven Stead and his creative team won nine Durban Theatre awards for their 2009 version. The current South African cast perform it with the playful spirit of a college play, which means it doesn’t matter so much when accents occasionally slip from the authentic New York Jewish twang.

Alan Committie and the trio of doo-wop-singing street urchins in The Little Shop of Horrors

The literally biting satire is underscored by wry lyrics in numbers such as Don’t Feed the Plants, Skid Row and The Meek Shall Inherit (they’ll get what’s coming to ’em!), all rousingly backed by a trio of female doo-wop-singing street urchins.

Well-known stand-up comic actor Alan Committie ably stars as Krelborn and Zak Hendrikz swaggers as the rockabilly dentist who gets high and dry on his own supply. The standout performance comes from Candice Van Litsenborgh, who brilliantly portrays the kooky Audrey.

One wonders, if transplanted, where the sketches depicted in this impoverished New York area would take place in South Africa today – downtown Hillbrow or Gympie Street in Cape Town, perhaps. But the production is faithful to the original milieu with colourful design and for those in the know, the brick walls of the Skid Row alley set are fittingly adorned with lurid publicity posters for films by Corman and Griffith – poets of trash cinema.

Little Shop of Horrors runs at the Pieter Toerien Main Theatre, Montecasino, until August 9

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