Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: Hugh Wheeler
Director: Nick Bagnall
Reviewer: John Roberts
If you attend this tale of Sweeney Todd, be prepared to see a version of the Sondheim musical which sees director Nick Bagnall strip back the piece and focus on the fundamental and important elements of music, lyrics and storytelling – this condensing brings an unrivalled clarity to the piece which feels almost revelatory, especially in his intimate “in the round” staging. It also forces a powerful vulnerability to the excellent ensemble throughout.
It should be said from the off – this isn’t the best-sung version of the musical one has seen, and at times the stakes of the characters feel a little softer and less urgent than one perhaps would like, but the energy and gravitas of the cast more than makeup for any shortcomings musically.
As the razor-wielding barber, Liam Tobin gives an assured and multi-layered performance which holds your attention, his character floating in a limbo somewhere between rage and desolation. He is equally matched by a sensational performance from Kacey Ainsworth as Mrs Lovatt. Here Ainsworth leaps around the stage with a jovial abundance, yet subtly hiding other darker thoughts, she handles the complexity of Sondheim’s lyrics beautifully and wrangles just as much comedy from the piece as possible – her rendition of A Little Priest arguably performed better than Imelda Staunton’s sensational portrayal in the West End a few years ago.
Strong support comes from Dean Nolan’s larger than life Pirelli, a gentle and caring performance comes from Shiv Rabheru as the tormented child-like Tobias Ragg. The menace comes full circle with a delicious performance from Paul Duckworth as the detestable Judge Turpin joined by a comic Beadle Bamford from Mark Rice-Oxley. Emma Dear’s is slightly underused as the Beggar Woman but she gives the role everything as do Keziah Joseph and Bryan Parry as the young lovers Joanna and Anthony.
But the show isn’t just about the performances from the cast, here in Bagnall’s production, he utilises the small 4-piece band under the musical direction of Tarek Merchant brilliantly throughout bringing them at times firmly into the middle of the action – this isn’t a production that tries to be completely natural, it relies on us, the audience, to fill in the gaps in set, costume and blood. We are asked to place our own dark thoughts upon the piece. Like all good thrillers and horrors, the demons really play in the moments we don’t see and that’s what makes this production even more enjoyable.
Powerful, visceral and illuminating, this is a Sweeney for the current political climate and is just as tasty and fulfilling as a slice of Priest.
Runs until 18 May 2019 | Image: Marc Brenner