Attend the Ballad of Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd @ Sheffield Lyceum, March 15th 2011.

Synopsys: London, Victorian times. A happy-go-lucky sailor is wide-eyed about being in London, a place like no other. The grimy tired faces of passers-by and the foggy atmosphere do not deter him from his excitement. Then his travel companion, a man they found adrift at sea and saved, joins in, comparing London to a cesspit. His look is world-weary, his eyes reveal a soul broken by life. He utters to the young man:

“Life has been kind to you. You will learn”.

An anger below the surface of his face, but still a calm delivery. His name is Sweeney Todd. It used to be another name, but that’s just the first of many threads waiting to unravel in this penny dreadful fodder called Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a musical penned by one of my fave writers, Stephen Sondheim and performed by Sheffield’s own Croft House Theatre Company.

What else happens? Suffice to say, it’s a grisly story of revenge and horrible pies (no, not Pukka*). Who could be better than Stephen Sondheim to put his  talent into this sort of story that is so Grand Guignol and so thoroughly entertaining? Between the 2006 revival in Broadway (superbly done with minimalistic perfection) and the recent Burton + Depp film (which I thoroughly enjoyed), the Demon Barber from Fleet street is enjoying a resurgence.

The show: I’ve previously had the pleasure of seeing the work of Croft House Theatre Company in 2009, with their outstanding version of The Producers. Back then, at the box office, I was warned (might be too strong a word, though), that it was an “amateur production”**. I beg to differ, as it was everything but.

Fast-forward two years, I buy tickets for Sweeney Todd and the same warning comes. Barring some slight technical problems, I can’t see the “amateur” bit.

In fact, let’s get the unpleasant bits out of the way, the following mishaps occurred: Judi Johnson-Hart‘s mic was out during her introductory song (although you could still hear her voice), a bell fell after being rang and Sweeney’s chair/chute (just go with it) had a mind of its own.

That’s it, only technical stuff failing, but the human element always working. Funny with this musical, problems happen all the time. I must say, though, that every single Sweeney Todd performance I’ve seen, the chair malfunctions. Must be a phantasmagoria-style curse roaming around.

Now, the good about the show? Everything else. I can’t see the “amateur” bit in the set, as it did look grimy and old enough to look like a Victorian street (fog and all – where’s Tom Baker in a deerstalker hat?). All actors had very good costumes and either I was hungry, or there were real pies being eaten on stage (hopefully with a different filling as the one implied).

The whole musical always rests on the shoulders of whoever plays Sweeney Todd and his accomplice, Mrs. Lovett. In this case, Martin Peacock (Sweeney) did an excellent job, conveying an understated anger behind a chilling look before his voice thundered the words of Sondheim. Judi Johnson-Hart also shined as Mrs. Lovett, the opportunistic pie maker that still hopes to make a better future for herself (with a few extra quid on her purse).

The rest of the cast was also pretty good (again I must question: amateur?), with Leah Rhodes (The Beggar) and Matthew Walker (Adolfo Pirelli – Charlatan extraordinaire!) doing an excellent job with their short but memorable parts. The ensemble pulled all stops when behaving like a Greek chorus (genuinely got frightened when they were at the asylum) and gave a vibrant, living feel to the stage.

Sondheim’s music has always had a peculiarity to itself. There’s this dissonance going around, with choruses drowning each other in crescendo (see ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’) and a strange chord progression that always makes it haunting. But it’s not all about creeping you out, as there are quite a lot of lighthearted moments, whether involving puns (the macabre “ha ha…why am I laughing at this??” ‘A little priest’) or the excellent routine with Todd‘s rival, Signore Adolfo Pirelli.

The cast managed to convey all of Sondheim‘s little nuances***, making the show very vibrant, vivid and well, fast paced (even if it did clocked a whopping 2 and a half hours). As previously stated, I’ve seen this musical before on stage and the cast got it just right. My personal faves were ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’, ‘Pirelli’s miracle elixir’, ‘A little priest’ and ‘City on fire’.

The music, the lightning, the costumes, the scenery, the acting, all come together thanks to director Gareth Davies’ fine job. His choice of darker colours in clothes juxtaposed with heavy flashes of red and amber lights exacerbated quite a few scenes, particularly one where Sweeney Todd has his epiphany and the aforementioned asylum sequence.

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is basically a revenge story. A revenge that leads to an obsession, to see everything in shades of red (excellent light display – again), forfeiting all sense of humanity under the barrage of hate being wielded in a switchblade. Sure, there are some stretches, plot-wise, but they are all part of the utterly dark twists that make this spectacle so entertaining (disturbing, though) and perhaps, a bit of a morality tale. You can’t have a moral without some gruesome punishment to the ones indulging in the folly of sin (in this case, anger).

The musical runs until Saturday 19 at Sheffield Lyceum Theatre. Totally worth yer money, kudos to all involved.



Croft House.

*I do like Pukka’s meat and potatoes one, but having tried some local stuff in Sheffield, they are lacking.

**Turns out it means that the actors are not in Equity. See a rant made by another columnist this Saturday regarding this and more theatre stuff.

*** Sunday in the park with George = Underrated.

About the author : The first time I heard about Sweeney Todd was because of the booklet of Collective Soul’s first album. They nicked the artwork from the classic image. Shame on them. Great album, though.

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