Little Shop of Horrors

For 20 years Belfast's Rainbow Factory has been setting young people on the road to stardom. Click Play Audio to hear the screams from their latest production

The Rainbow Factory is full of colours. In the glass-fronted reception, kids in green hoodies and pastel t-shirts run up the stairs to the first-floor theatre, while a stream of young actors in socks and barefooted dancers jog down. Two are being dispatched into the city on a last-minute prop-hunt.

'Be back for four o'clock,' says theatre technician Andrew McKenna. 'Remember - old style. Good luck'.

The list includes coats and hats, a nitrous oxide pump, and a bloody arm. While the kids scour the city, it is McKenna's task to get his hands on an old shop till. 'Where do you get one of those on your lunch break?,' he asks with disbelief.

Young actors in the Rainbow Factory prepare for Little Shop of HorrorsRehearsals for the Rainbow Factory's Little Shop of Horrors are in full swing. Directed by Tom Finlay, the play combines acting with music and choreography, with puppets designed by Martin Robinson. When it goes live, the cast hope to fill the 150-capacity theatre. In the meantime, the whole building buzzes.

On the second floor, the workshop is filled with teenage singers practising boisterous three-part harmonies. At lunchtime the Green Room fills with kids and staff clamouring for first use of the microwave.

Today the Hampton Suite - named after the east Belfast house from which the organisation grew - remains empty. The fifth floor of the building is occupied by Contact Youth, who collaborated with the Rainbow Factory on a performance entitled Crossroads. One year into their new premises, the Rainbow Factory are making full use of the space.

'A couple of years ago we did Peter Pan,' says former actor Dean McCullough. 'We got some good stuff out of that. We went to Children In Need and did scenes live on air. We took it on tour and played to audiences in Derry, which was great because I was much younger at the time.'

Now in his ninth year with the group, McCullough has become a peer educator and assistant to the Rainbow Factory's drama and dance education officer Cheryl O'Dwyer. She is responsible for the actors' gruelling regime of stretches and exercises, as well as choreography in Little Shop of Horrors.

Cheryl O'Dwyer directs the Little Shop of Horrors cast'There's been a lot of our young people who have gone on to work with the various theatre companies in Northern Ireland,' she says.

'There's Gerard McCabe, currently on stage with Kabosh in Henry & Harriet, or Marty McCann who I think is still in Australia filming with Steven Spielberg. We presently have eight young people in drama schools in London, Wales and Scotland. We're very proud of them.'

Operating as part of Youth Action Northern Ireland, the Rainbow Factory lists Little Shop of Horrors in a summer programme which includes workshops and technical theatre training. 

'Now I'm starting to think of my career as an actor and a singer,' says McCullough.

'The next couple of years are crucial and it's great because the Rainbow Factory are there, asking questions, making sure you do the right thing and that you stay focussed. They see the potential in everybody, but the show at the moment is definitely one of the best I've taken part in.'

After a half-hour lunch break, McCullough fills the performance space with actors and begins the afternoon's dance routines. O'Dwyer makes a prompt start warming up with the singers. In the reception, technician McKenna has had success with the props.

'I got the till,' he says triumphantly. 'A real old rusty one with a winding arm, from the Bon Bon sweet shop in County Down. Now I've just to figure out how to get it up here.'

Little Shop of Horrors plays at the Rainbow Factory Studio Theatre, College Square North, Belfast, from August 7-16. Call the box office on 028 90 240 551 for booking and further details.

Kiran Acharya