Sweeney and Lovett

Sophie-Louise Dann as Mrs Lovett and Hugh Maynard as Sweeney Todd. Pictures: Robert Day.

Sweeney Todd

Derby Theatre

****

SWEENEY Todd has enough classic ingredients to verge of the corny: a wicked couple, amounting to a witch with a furnace-like oven and a barber who wields the razor to cut not drooping locks but unsuspecting throats; a fair maid whose ogre of a guardian plans to marry her himself and invest or spend the readies; a heroic young sailor who uses his shore leave to rescue her from his grasping clutches; and a lad coerced or  blackmailed into joining the evil pair, only finally to blow the whistle on the whole dastardly enterprise.

It’s pantomime really, but this is something much more: the music and lyrics are by Stephen Sondheim, and here, in the capable hands of music director Michael Haslam, who not only supplied a positive wealth of keyboard playing, both as accompaniment and within the brilliantly lucid textures, but also delivered with his five-man ensemble some unfaultable pacings, so that with the exception of the ubiquitous ‘Johanna’ song, which pops up with slightly tiresome regularity during the show, much of the music comes in the form of a sparkling scherzo, each delivered with as much panache by the cast by Haslam’s terrifically spruce, well-marshalled quintet.

Of course the impact of Sweeney Todd hinges above all on the two central characters – the barbarous Sweeney and his accomplice (in this lively and at times riveting production, virtually in the driving seat) the incredibly juicy piemaker Mrs. Lovett. But the company as a whole – at least as individuals – produced some memorable cameos. It is unfortunate for Jack Wilcox (as the appropriately named sailor Anthony Hope) that Hugh Wheeler’s libretto leaves some of the lesser characters, including the lovelorn Hope, not especially well drawn.

So one is left not so much with the character as with the musical contribution, and all of these characters – not least Hope, with a gentle lilting tenor (or perhaps high baritone) put their heart and soul into the singing, so that if the drama occasionally drooped – that wasn’t very often – the vocal delivery was invariably pleasing and always appealing.

For example, Julian Hoult as Beadle Bamford proved later especially (before being minced up) that he too has an attractive tenor: his moves were pastiche, as is inevitable for anyone wielding onstage a predictably large sceptre of office. But he lent gentle authority and indeed sympathy to his role, and added a feeling of fun whenever his smiling features appeared. Christine Bennington made of Johanna whatever one can of a limply designed character – scoring especially when Johanna stands up for herself and disguises herself – nearly fatally – as a boy. At least she had a good deal of spirit.

And to prove it, she stood up boldly to her scheming, machinating guardian. That required a good deal of nerve, for David Durham created a firm and comJohannamanding as well as authoritative figure as Judge Turpin: one could just imagine the oppressive and claustrophobic feeling caused by being shuffled off to run his household for him.

But Durham actually created a sympathetic character too: not a villain, and indeed not unattractive either, yet someone who was incapable of grasping how unappetising life with a much older man would be for a girl not yet embarked on a far more optimistic love life.

 Christine Bennington as Johanna

The cameo which set the show rolling quite effectively was Kara Lane’s Beggar Woman: one of the better conceived characters, largely because at the end she will prove to Sweeney not to be who she seems: Beggar women inevitably invite comedy, and Lane’s pottering around on a stick inevitably engendered a hearty laugh or two. But the timing of her ragged, insistent visits nicely suggested there might be some connection yet to emerge.

Perhaps stars among the bit parts – quite substantial bits in fact – were two very different characters who first appear together. Signor Pirelli if well plotted can add a lot of zip to the early scenes, and Simon Shorten produced a brilliant character, acting with endless flair, and singing and moving with perfect coordination. The wit and ingenuity of his performing  helped greatly to ensure that the early scenes in Daniel Buckroyd’s mosly gripping and energised production came off splendidly, with the possible exception of one weakly moved, dully uncoordinated chorus scene (the singing and music were admirable, despite that brief drawback).

Pirelli’s assistant is the young lad Toby, or Tobias Ragg, who proves an able aide to his ‘Italian’ (more like Liverpudlian) superior, but proves even more of one to Mrs. Lovett, when because of knowledge inadvertently acquired he narrowly avoids becoming one of the first victims of the pie factory. Toby needs pathos to move audience hearts (by dramatic irony we’re conscious of his narrow escape) and Ryan Heenan’s earnest, dedicated and willing service attracts our sympathy even more than Bennington’s put-upon Johanna. In his brief solo offerings, his entertaining patter with Mrs. Lovett, and his honest fronting of the barber’s shop, he too proved one of the memorable items of this enjoyable show.

Sara Perks was responsible for set and costumes. And she pulled this off superbly – one is reminded of the former Derby Playhouse’s magnificent staging of the Musical some eight or so years ago. A large – one might say massive – construction on a revolving centre stage conjures up with considerable insight the various sides of the grim Victorian (possibly tenement) block where meat pie making is not quite what it seems. A steep staircase has the advantage that each character’s approach to the upstairs barber shop amounts to a long and ominous pilgrimage – whether leading to another grisly demise or just occasionally to an unexpected escape.

Downstairs, we are treated to Mrs. Lovett’s drawing room with harmonium, which generates one very witty scene for her and Toby; and all this alongside a counter which serves as Mrs. L’s servery in the pie parlour for a deliriously enthusiastic gaggle of unaware customers; and the ghastly chute down which victims cascade frtodd and lovettom barber shop to furnace door, ready to be served up to those same customers a few hours later.

So what of those two principle roles? The wicked ones, the malefactors? Hugh Maynard has a rather noble presence, almost regal, towering above the others but not necessarily threatening.

Sweeney and Mrs Lovett don't always see pie to pie, so to speak

He played Sweeney as a rather sympathetic character, one not naturally given over to brutality, but somehow lured into it by necessity and an unscrupulous woman. His singing was most agreeable, even if his character seemed a bit static, and a bit stolid. One can imagine him making a most imposing Othello. In a way, one wanted to urge him to free up, to relax more, and to find more subtlety and undertow in the role. This is not altogether an actor’s fault, it’s partially there in Sondheim and Wheeler’s design of the role. But actor and director have to find a way through those limitations to get the most satisfaction from the part.

By contrast, Mrs Lovett was insuppressible. Sondheim naughtily gives her most of the best lines, and a high proportion of the best music. In the first half she has four or five solos that go – or can go, as here – at a terrific pace. The lyrics are hilarious, but it needs as terrific an actress as Sophie-Louise Dann (Grange Park Opera’s Widow Corney) to carry off both aspects – music and lyrics – as brilliantly as she does. Whipped along by Haslam and his superlative musicians, these ditties simply took fire. Endlessly, we were whipped along – and the sound (Adam McCready) was just perfect: never overbearing, almost as if there were no loudspeakers at all. Very rare for a musical, and wholly admirable.

As for Lovett, Funny, half dotty, mischievous, dazzling, impish, possibly heartless - finding fun in the most appalling grotesqueries, Sophe-Louise Dann was easily the star of this always entertaining show. What a truly brilliant performance. To 22-10-16

Roderic Dunnett

10-10-16

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