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Derek Bond chats about Little Shop of Horrors at the Royal Exchange

With pantos filling the theatre schedules for Christmas, the Royal Exchange is staging something alternative; Little Shop of Horrors and we chat to the director to find out more.

What appealed to you about directing Little Shop of Horrors?

Little Shop of Horrors publicity poster
© Royal Exchange Theatre

Sarah Frankcom mentioned the Royal Exchange were interested in doing a musical at Christmas which might not necessarily be described as a festive show, perhaps something darker but still suitable for families. She suggested Little Shop of Horrors, which I've always loved - I think it's one of the best musical scores around.

Alan Menken went on to write all those amazing scores for Disney films (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Little Mermaid, etc) and you can hear the beginnings of those scores in Little Shop. It's a hungry composer and lyricist (Howard Ashman) giving it their all. There's not a dull song in the whole show. And it walks a fine line between darkness and light, and I'm always attracted to stories that do that. I remember watching the Frank Oz film when I was 10 or 11 and being a bit terrified but laughing at the same time. That's what I'd like the audience to feel too.

What demands are there, staging this in the round?

Little Shop is usually done end-on – which allows for you to hide the mechanics of the plant and be more presentational. The most difficult thing about the Exchange is that there's nowhere to hide, but that's also the best thing about it. It forces you to make unconventional decisions. It also brings the audience into the world of the show, something that's also helped by the "Shopettes" – our Greek Chorus comprised of 3 of the best singers you'll ever hear. We're halfway through rehearsals, and now I can't imagine how it could possibly work any other way than in-the-round.

It's clearly alternative festive fare, was that also appealing?

Definitely. A theatre's Christmas show is a big responsibility – for a lot of people (myself included) their first experience of theatre is a Christmas show. Get it right and you can inspire, entertain, delight and surprise people who may not think theatre is for them. There is often a good deal of twee-ness around at Christmas, it's exciting to be able to provide an alternative. That said, our production is not without glitz: making the show our motto has been the Three Gs: Grime, Gore and Glitter.

Do you have a favourite song in the show?

It's a running joke in the rehearsal room that after we've rehearsed each number I declare it to be my new favourite in the show. "Skid Row" (Downtown) is a brilliant piece of song writing – it introduces the world and the characters, their hopes and dreams. Speaking of dreams, "Somewhere That's Green" is powerfully moving, seeing Audrey's dream of living a life from the pages of Better Homes & Garden Magazine breaks your heart when Kelly Price sings it. And there is some spectacular plant singing in "Git It." But it's "Dentist!" that really encapsulates the horror and comedy that I love about the show.

Why do you think Little Shop has so many die-hard fans?

It was a cult film (the original 1960 film features a very young Jack Nicholson) then a cult show, which then in turn became a cult movie. I think a cult piece is owned by its audience and fans. Little Shop is so often done – by schools, colleges, amateur groups – once you've been in a show you feel like you own it, it becomes yours. So people feel very fondly about it.

How is Audrey II coming along?

Audrey II, the carnivorous Mephistopheles-like plant is amazing. We've got Toby Olié as puppet designer and director – he was one of the associates on War Horse and also part of the team that created Elephantom. Along with our designer James Perkins, we've created a plant that's unlike any other. Because we're in the round, the traditional avocado-with-a-mouth design simply wouldn't work. We're keeping it under wraps, but our Audrey II ends up looking like a cross between an orchid, a skunk cabbage (look it up), Ridley Scott's Alien and the Pit of Sarlacc from Star Wars. And it moves…

What's your favourite musical and or play and why?

Always the one I'm working on! I recently directed my first Shakespeare (As You Like It at Southwark Playhouse) and loved it. Like Little Shop it's a great balance of light and shade, bleakness and silliness. And it's very musical. Musical-wise, probably Kander and Ebb's Cabaret. Brilliant songs, powerful story… it's got everything.

What can audiences expect from the show if they're new to the material?

A great night at the theatre. It's one hit song after another, with some spectacular moments, some good scares and a lot of surprises all performed by a tremendous cast. Oh, and a plant that eats people. And sings. I can't wait to see it myself.

Little Shop of Horrors is at the Royal Exchange Theatre from 5 December until 31 January.