A CurtainUp London Review
Director Derek Anderson gives us a close up view of Victorian London with the ceiling barely clearing the heads of some of the taller actors. There is a dark and sinister touch to the brooding make-up which adds no end to the atmosphere expertly lit by Joel Price and Andrew Hinton. With no character more than a few feet away from the 60 odd seat theatre audience, we get a really close up experience. The advantage of this is that we miss not a word of Sondheim's wonderful lyrics from almost every performer.
The prologue, "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" introduces the whole company before meeting Sweeney and sailor Anthony Hope (Josh Tevendale) off the boat from Australia. Whilst they sing with the foul mouthed Beggar Woman (Zoe Curlett) about the cess pit that is London we move on to some of the culinary delights of the capital with Mrs Lovett's "The Worst Pies in London, "the meat for which seems to have been sourced from pussy cats.
After hearing what happened to Sweeney's wife we learn that his daughter Johanna (Genevieve Kingsford) has been adopted as his ward by the evil Judge Turpin (Mark McKerracher). Genevieve Kingsford has a super voice which can match the vocal heights of David Bedella and Sarah Ingram. A highlight of the first act is when Mrs Lovett shows Mr Todd the tools of his trade including the silver razor which she has kept safely all these years, when he was transported to Australia. We are reminded that in the 18th century barbers were often also surgeons.
Once Sweeney gets into the swing of self-preservation having been recognised by Pirelli (Shaun Chambers) there are plenty of bodies to be disposed of and Mrs Lovett hones her butchery skills. As David Bedella's splendid bass baritone conveys, he sings about the razor as his friend and says it will "drip rubies" a graphic description of the flow of blood. A brilliant chair runs in and out to despatch the victims to the pie making section and the resulting pies are a gastronomic success but only because no-one suspects what is in them.
The set is simple but useful with a trap door in the floor, a sliding door for the barber's chair and a window for Johanna to sing her caged bird song from.
I loved the shaving competition between Todd and Pirelli where Todd's customer gets a back and neck massage while Pirelli spends hours mixing the shaving cream and splatters some the audience in the process. The front row is practically sitting on the playing area in this close quartered theatre.
Closing the first act, Sondheim lists the occupations of the pie meat contributors, a little priest, poet, bishop, curate and lawyer. Copious amounts of blood are shed in this generous production and the noise I thought was rain on the roof was actually blood running into the grills in the floor. The throat slitting is so brilliantly executed that the gruesome murders are uncomfortably close. My only visual criticism is about the manicured and painted nails of the beggar woman, which of course you can see clearly in this tiny space.
It is such a pleasure to see the great David Bedella in this dark role delivering all of Sondheim's jaunty tunes and witty lyrics with such clarity and Sarah Ingram acts and sings so well as Mrs Lovett , we feel compassion for this woman who is quite in love with Sweeney Todd. A super opening production!
For Elyse Sommer's review of Sweeney Todd in New York in 2005 with full plot details and the complete song list go here.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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