Stephen Sondheim’sSweeney Todd is always a crowd-pleaser. A tale of obsession and revenge, dressed as a Gothic Horror story, it has been revived, lauded and acclaimed by critics and the public alike since its debut in 1979.
In the cutthroat world of musical theatre this latest production, by Derby Theatre and Colchester’s Mercury Theatre, is up there with the best of them.
It isn’t for the faint-hearted. There’s the blood-letting, for starters, but that’s actually quite anaemic. In fact director Daniel Buckroyd could make more of an impact with a few bloody gushers. The throat-slicing by barber Sweeney Todd (Hugh Maynard) only created a bit of a disappointing trickle at my Saturday matinee.
But I’d forgotten just how shocking the musical is – ignoring the mass murder and cannibalistic elements, obviously. The scene in which Todd’s wife is raped is graphic and Buckroyd holds nothing back.
This is a dark and sombre interpretation of Sonheim’s penny dreadful musical thriller. The gallows humour, often racked up by directors to detract from the gore-fest unfolding in the story, is only occasionally seen.
Maynard’s performance as the enraged Todd is compelling. He appears permanently consumed with anger and bitterness. Hell bent on retribution he stands on stage with his fists clenched, his body taut and his face twisted in fury. He never looks comfortable in anything less than a frenzied rage.
Thankfully we have Sophie-Louise Dann as pie-maker extraordinaire, Mrs Nellie Lovett, to provide a feast of belly-laughs with her outrageous and grotesque business plan. It’s a star turn from the actress.
Set in the most wretched of times, Victorian East London, she finds it hard to get filling for her pies. A supply of cats seems to have been snapped up by the competition. So a regular delivery of fresh meat is a godsend…if only it didn’t smell so rank.
The villain of the piece, of course, is the evil Judge Turpin (David Durham) who frames Todd for a crime he didn’t commit and gets him transported for life just so he could get his hands on the barber’s beautiful wife.
But 15 years later Todd finds a way back home and, after discovering the awful truth about what happened to his wife, is determined to exact revenge.
Unfortunately he gets a bit carried away. Slicing throats of men who won’t be missed becomes easier than giving them a close shave.
Woven into this hellish story is a fringe line following the fate of Todd’s young and innocent daughter, Johanna. This captive songbird is in danger of being the next victim of the sleazy judge unless she can be rescued by Todd and her love interest, a young sailor called Anthony (Jack Wilcox).
Hugh Wheeler’s sweeping and tragic story is matched by an outstanding score from Sondheim that borders on the operatic.
This talented company has a couple of fine operatic voices in it which give depth and power to every song. Beggar woman, Kara Lane, and Christina Bennington as Johanna are particularly outstanding as are the voices of Simon Shorten (rival barber Pirelli), Durham, and Julian Hoult.
Sara Park’s stunning set is a real centrepiece although I’d like to have seen the barber shop on the ground floor. I don’t think the audience gets to appreciate the dispatching of the clients when it’s done at mezzanine level.
A first rate production that has already won fans in Derby and is likely to do the same in Colchester. Running until November 12.
Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Sweeping, tragic and dark. Derby & Mercury Theatre’s co-production of Sweeney Todd is one of the best.