Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: Hugh Wheeler
Adaptation: Christopher Bond
Director: Daniel Buckroyd
Musical Director: Michael Haslam
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
Those who think stage musicals are all sequins, kick lines and jazz hands have obviously never been to Stephen Sondheim’s darkest of works, Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
To be fair, there’s been much debate over the years if this complex and powerful score is musical theatre or opera. Both approaches have been tried and tested, but here, director Daniel Buckroyd firmly goes for the musical theatre route.
That’s not to say there is any dumbing down or lightening of tone, far from it. From the opening discordant notes of an organ to the final chorus, it’s clear this is a score of immense power. Buckroyd keeps the setting in the traditional Victorian period. The dark, grimy streets of London conjured up in Sara Perks’ simple but effective revolving set.
Buckroyd has also marshalled a much smaller cast than is traditional for this grand piece, the majority of the cast moving from named character to ensemble with consummate ease. It’s a deceptively small cast as the choral numbers are arguably the strongest moments, harmonies and pitches combine with an impressively large sound.
There’s some fine character work on offer too. Jack Wilcox and Christina Bennington as the besotted young lovers Anthony and Joanna have real chemistry and sing beautifully. David Durham is suitably menacing as Judge Turpin. There’s also a strong physical and vocal performance from Ryan Heenan as Toby, the perfectly timed comic Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir, counterpointed with the touching Not While I’m Around. Though oddly on press night a row of highly visible and distracting tape across Heenan’s head to hold on a microphone somewhat distracted from the period feel.
The two central roles of Sweeney are pivotal to the success of any production. Recognised as some of the most demanding roles in Sondheim’s canon, the roles have been shaped by several high profile landmark performances. Sophie-Louise Dann’ Mrs Lovett and Hugh Maynard’s Todd never reach those levels but there is still much to enjoy.
Dann’s Lovett is a beautifully detailed character study, pitched with comic timing and just the right sense of darkness. Her rendition of Worst Pies In London sets the tone for a mesmerising performance. Here is a woman desperate to love but ultimately betrayed yet still imbued with a feisty independence.
Maynard’s Demon Barber is less successful. Somewhat underplayed, it’s hard to believe the torment and sense of revenge that drives this man to such blood-soaked means. He may serve a ‘dark and a vengeful God’ but that vengeance rarely comes to the fore and there’s little evidence of the demonic. Maynard is a talented singer without doubt and there are moments that thrill but, overall, it’s a vocal performance that struggles with the lower registers and leaves many lines lost. The pivotal Epiphany number, where Todd finally succumbs to his demons, is particularly underpowered, though the following comic number Priest conversely works well.
The range of the score and the lower register is an issue that affects many of the company, the complex rhythms and structure of Sondheim’s score and lyrics being tackled with vigour, though at the cost of clarity and diction. Michael Haslam’s musical direction gets am impressively wide sound from his five-piece band, perched high on Perks’ set, though again sound balance at times masks the lyrical wordplay.
Approaching 40 years since it was first staged, Sweeney Todd remains Sondheim’s masterpiece. In Buckroyd’s production for Derby Theatre and the Mercury Theatre, it seems as fresh as the day it was written, yet somewhat hampered by a leaden title role performance.
Runs until 12 November 2016 | Image: Robert Day