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Doyle's Sweeney Todd is a cut above the rest



Review by David Munro

I DIDN'T really cotton on to the idea of Sweeney Todd being performed by a troupe of players without an orchestra.

However, hearing it was to be transferred from the Trafalgar Studios to the New Ambassadors Theatre for a full West End run, I felt I should swallow my prejudices and go and see for my self exactly what was going on.

I went, I saw, I was conquered. This production sweeps away all pre-conceived notions of Sweeney only being appropriate for big houses, preferably with the prefix Opera.

It proves, once and for all, that Sondheim’s work is good enough and strong enough to be performed anyhow, anywhere.

When it is played (literally) and sung as well as in John Doyle’s current production, one realises how pointless Harold Prince’s cavernous factory staging is, and that this is a work which, in fact, comes over more strongly in the intimacy of a small theatre and a small cast.

John Doyle’s production has a vibrancy which I never remember before (and I have seen a lot of Sweeneys in all the right theatres).

Gone were the longeurs to which I must confess to have suffered heretofore. Every word, every note made the right impact and the evening sped past without a note or foot going wrong.

Of course, the cast warrants every superlative in the book.

Paul Hegarty’s Sweeney has a strong and resonant voice which, at the same time, is capable of displaying the underlying emotion and despair of the demonic barber.

His part in the second act quartet – Johanna - was grippingly poignant while his singing of the Epiphany had the required venom and ferocity to make it one of the highlights of the evening.

He was well paired with a Mrs Lovett, in Karen Mann, whose wonderfully earthy, good-natured villainy seemed absolutely right for the part. It made me see, in retrospect, how unsuitable had been some of the other performances in this part.

Although this is heresy, I venture to suggest that her portrayal surpasses that of Angela Lansbury, the paragon against which all subsequent performances have been judged.

Certainly, her singing of By the Sea had a note of wistfulness I never remember hearing in it before; it is usually sung as a belting Music Hall number which, I now realise, it clearly is not.

Colin Wakefield’s Judge and Michael Howcroft’s Beadle were well sung and rounded examples of hypercritical venery and villainy, making Todd’s rage against them all the more plausible.

Rebecca Jenkins and David Riccardo-Pierce were a charming pair of lovers; Miss Jenkins, in particular, sailed through Sondheim’s challenging and difficult arias with aplomb.

The put-upon Tobias was given more prominence than I remember in other productions, which gave Sam Kenyon scope to make a charming, if a little half-witted, character, which he seized with both hands.

Pirelli, the rival barber whose murder by Todd sets the melodrama really going, was, somewhat surprisingly, played by a woman, Stephanie Jacob, but within the parameters of this production this seemed quite natural and not in the least bit out of place.

Particularly as Stephanie Jacob has a full rich contralto which she used to good effect and with humour.

My only criticism, and it is hardly that, is that given the beggar woman is Todd’s wife and Johanna’s mother, it was a pity that the talented Rebecca Jackson looked fully old enough to have been Johanna’s younger sister.

That is not to say she wasn’t effective in the part, she was. Her changes of mood and delicate singing fully suited the role, and at times almost convinced me she was much older than she appeared, so perhaps I am not being just to her, nor to the director.

I must not forget to mention that besides singing and acting, most importantly, all the characters other than Todd played a multitude of instruments extremely professionally and with the result that one did not notice, nor in fact fully realise, that there was no orchestra.

Full marks to Sarah Travis for her brilliant arrangements and musical direction.

The set was a bare area with a coffin on two trestles, a stepladder and two chairs against the background of a large dresser /set of shelves carrying a myriad of objects and props.

All of which were called into play to illustrate the story most efficiently as the one and onlie begetter, Mr Doyle, intended.

This is the second of Mr Doyle's productions of this nature I have, by chance, seen in the same week.

The other, Pinafore Swing, being as different from Sweeney as chalk from cheese.

Both use musician/ actor/ singers with skill and taste and my admiration for Mr Doyle's innovative expertise knows no bounds.

Having now graduated from Gilbert and Sullivan to Sondheim I can only wait with rapt anticipation for his next production. May I suggest that A Little Night Music would befit from his ingenious touch?

To revert to Sweeney, I can only say that it is a brilliant piece of theatre in the true sense of the word.

A sophisticated version of the old versatile mummers who performed on carts and brought their shows to life through the audience’s imagination.

John Doyle proves with Sweeney Todd that, given the right cast and direction, this can still work.

I am glad that the transfer proves that this approach is properly appreciated by the audience of today.

I wish Sweeney Todd good luck in his move to his new home. I hope, in memory of a previous tenant, that, like a bloody Mousetrap, he may remain there for many years yet to come.

Sweeny Todd. Book by Hugh Wheeler; Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
Director and Designer: John Doyle; Music Director and Arranger, Sarah Travis; Lighting, Richard G. Jones; Sound, Chris Full.
CAST: Paul Hegarty; Michael Howcroft; Stephanie Jacob; Rebecca Jackson; Rebecca Jenkins; Sam Kenyon; Karen Mann; David Ricardo-Pierce; Colin Wakefield.
New Ambassadors Theatre, West Street London, WC2H 9ND.
Box Office: 020 7369 1761.

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