Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Tue 10th – Sat 14th November 2015

reviews

Clare Cavenagh

at 23:22 on 10th Nov 2015

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Full disclosure: I love Sweeney Todd. I can sing along to all the songs, including the chorus numbers and the weird ones they didn't put in the film. I had high expectations of this show, and barring a few technical glitches, and a few tuning issues, I really enjoyed it. In spite of a bit of a slow start, the close was met with thunderous applause.

The design and direction of this production were pretty traditional for the show (everyone was a sort of grungy Victorian pauper) but worked really well. Simple choreography and really creative ideas about lighting created some scenes that were genuinely chilling. Fans of the show will be pleased to know that there was a satisfyingly mechanical body-disposal chair lovingly manufactured, and put to good use. The band was evicted from the pit and placed up on a balcony, which allowed the use of coloured lights and smoke machines to create a sort of subterranean space, sometimes the bake-house, sometimes a sort of inferno, from which nasty things could emerge, and into which they could disappear.

The musical side of this musical was of varying quality, but when it worked, it was fabulous. The orchestra were mostly great, but suffered from a few tuning problems, and the odd first-night mistake. Likewise, the singing was generally great - the point with a musical is to be as in character as possible while breaking into song anyway, and most people managed this really well. There were a few tuning problems, Green Finch and Linnet Bird was disappointing in this respect, although things picked up later. Sometimes the performers themselves were let down a little by the often too-loud and oddly-balanced sound, and there were a few microphone mix-ups. Hopefully some of this will be ironed out in subsequent performances.

Zak Ghazi-Torbati and Aoife Kennan were great as the two leads, but it was some of the supporting performances which stole the show. Tom Beaven was phenomenal as Judge Turpin, and his rendition of Johanna: Mea Culpa was intense and hugely impressive, almost hard to watch. Joanna Clarke was scary and lewd as the Beggar Woman, and then tragic as... well... no spoilers. Brandon Levin's Pirelli was ultra-camp, larger than life, and got big laughs, although I felt very confused by his later 'Irish' accent. Because of the nature of the character, this wasn't too much of a problem, but seriously. Irish?

The show was well and truly stolen by Joe Pitts as Tobias. His initially off-putting gawky stance and awkward movements (think one of those pantomime portrayals of Richard III with one shoulder higher than the other, but thin) transformed over the course of the show, and by the end, he was a truly endearing character. His final scenes were genuinely moving, and his singing in Not While I'm Around was beautiful. He started out the show as a ridiculous cartoon, and ended it as the emotional heart of the story, and managed both superbly.

Sweeney Todd wasn't perfect, there were some technical glitches, particularly in the sound balance and the use of microphones, and occasionally the tuning of singers and orchestra were a little disappointing. But the entire audience came away from it having thoroughly enjoyed themselves. It was funny (perhaps surprisingly so for a show that makes a point of just about killing off the whole cast) and scary and sometimes moving. I had very high expectations of this show, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Robert Penn

at 05:19 on 11th Nov 2015

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Mrs Lovett slaps her dough with a rolling pin in time to the off beats of her first big number: ‘The Worst Pies in London’. This is a popular staging of the song. It's a piece requiring superb comic timing from the actor- something Aoife Kennan has in spades. Her violent attack of the bready mix encapsulates the spirit of Sondheim’s savage tale. His macabre Sweeney Todd follows the story of barber Benjamin Barker, recently returned to London after years in exile to open a new food production line with his besotted landlady. In contrast to the Waitrose Bakery infrastructure, Todd murders ‘deserving’ victims with a close shave, whilst Lovett cooks their bodies into pies. Before Sondheim developed the story into a musical in 1979 it first appeared in a serialisation, ‘The String of Pearls: A Romance’ (1846-1847). Since it has become a classic narrative- underlined by the popularity of Tim Burton’s 2007 film adaptation. Despite some rough edges, Marthe De Ferrer and Georgie Henley's production provides a traditional interpretation of the work and a thoroughly entertaining evening. Though I certainly will be avoiding Greggs in the coming weeks.

If this production were to be starred according to its music- I would give it 4-5 stars. Controlling Sondheim’s music in order to appropriately deliver his dark content is a fine art – and one effortlessly achieved by Joe Beighton, James Bartlett, and their musicians. In chorus numbers such as ‘City on Fire’ the sumptuously strangling notes aptly convey Fleet Street’s murderous atmosphere- stirring the audience into enthralling discomfort. Mention too should be given to the astonishing voice of soprano Holly Musgrave (Johanna) who’s top notes gleamed with clarity like honeyed diamonds. Adi George’s operatic rendition of ‘I'll Steal You Johanna’ - which, at one point, seemed to burst from nowhere to engulf the auditorium with despair- was equally arresting.

Scenes with the whole cast on-stage, however, were often under choreographed and would sometimes end up with all characters standing in lines. Such moments served to flatten on-stage events, though quickly came and went. It was Zak Ghazi-Torbati – along with Kennan’s Lovett- leading the show. He evidenced Todd’s progressive journey into a dark abyss in both his increasingly dejected gaze, and the evermore deadpan foil he provided to Mrs Lovett’s energetic flirtation. His soft yet rich voice glided through tunes with clarity and grace. Kennan’s cockney accent was infallible throughout. I particularly liked how she avoided an obvious route – copying Bonham Carter’s (2007) gothic and twitchy Lovett – to instead make her like a joyous East-end bar woman with some dirty secrets. Though at one stage hamming a confusing Irish accent, Brandon Levin otherwise gave a standout performance as Pirelli. A twisted moustache and self-deluding arrogance set the auditorium alight as the Italian stallion arrived through smoke to an expectant crowd. Contrasting Pirelli’s appropriate melodrama, Joe Pitts portrayed the young Tobias with naturalism and poignancy. His quivering lip was often the most watchable feature onstage.

Of the same high standard were some mechanical elements of the set. A void at the front of the stage was optimised as a staging tool when Megan Gilbert, James Daly and Caroline Sautter would, to rapturous laughter, emerge from it periodically as 'the sea' in Mrs Lovett’s ‘By The Sea’. There was a genius technical eye applied too to Mr Todd’s chair. Deceased clients could be ejected off it via the pull of a lever, releasing them through a trap door and down a slide into his oven. However, these carefully executed design features were let down significantly by crudely painted shop signage and brick walls. Evoking a secondary school production, these somewhat undermined the other set elements which would have benefited from a simpler, less faux-naturalistic, presentation. Furthermore, whilst execution bibs – complete with inbuilt blood packs-had been carefully designed by costume for barber shop customers, I left with an overall sense that the play’s real potential for horror, grotesque and gore hadn't been fully realised. It was, indeed, a very polite Sweeney Todd- serving as contrast to an Australian production described in conversation by my fellow reviewer. Here the front two rows had to wear anoraks to protect them from the fake blood outpouring from the stage.

Having seen the production on its first night, I would say that with the talent working on it it is only going to improve exponentially throughout the week. The show's aesthetic features ultimately slide into the background behind a company that performs with supreme musical skill. Mrs Lovett and Mr Todd wish to put the 'actor' in their pie. If you don't have a suitable pie- put these actors and singers in your schedule.

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