In A Nutshell
Perhaps the most ingenious and tenacious of productions ever, the brand spanking new Twickenham Theatre opens with a production of Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece that all future versions will be judged by.
One of Stephen Sondheim’s most celebrated and well known works, this musical thriller draws its influence from similar tales appearing in Victorian penny dreadfuls that have since become urban legend. A barber murders his customers and packs their dismembered bodies into pastries to be sold in the pie shop below, forming part of a larger revenge plot.
Hugh Wheeler’s book combines together the rag-bag of grim horror stories, sold for a penny on the streets of Victorian London (hence, ‘penny dreadfuls’), and weaves from it a plot of revenge and dastardly companionship. Sweeney is given the back story of being transported, as a ploy by a judge to snatch his beautiful wife: thus giving him a mens rea for his murderous spree. Mrs. Lovett is the long-time and besotted companion of Mr. Todd who abets him by literally using his crimes to flesh out her ailing pie business.
But what’s best about Wheeler’s book is that he also seasons this tale with a ghastly sense of humour. He creates a varied tapestry that takes audiences through everything from the frenzied to the funny, and from the tender to the tense, sometimes simultaneously. His characters are colourful, and each play an integral and in the story’s complex development. No-one feels like a superfluous after-thought, and character development (and dispatching) slides neatly into the main narrative without being forced in. It’s a meticulous and well constructed book that puts most other musicals to shame. Everything has a purpose, place, and pace here.
Music & Lyrics
Some, including myself, would argue that this is probably one of Sondheim’s richest and most complex scores. Particularly, it has some of his most memorable songs with very few (if any) of the numbers here being forgettable or lacking in lustre. But the real genius is his use of leitmotifs throughout. By themselves they are sweeping and notable, marking a character with aural dexterity and giving them an extra layer to their persona of their written role. But the real genius is how these keep cropping up in incredibly complex quartets or echoed subtly in the orchestral underlay. It’s a score that meticulously holds everything in place as much as it drives the action.
Sondheim’s music manages to compliment Wheeler’s characterisations and plot development, embracing both the manic and the magical. Sondheim really compliments the many juxtapositions and little in-jokes that Wheeler toys so well with. Particularly, numbers such as “Joanna” in the Second Act, where Sweeney wistfully laments the distance between him and his daughter whilst causally cuts the throats of his victims, is one of the most outrageous and memorable moments of the entire musical. But then there are numbers such as “City on Fire” that is a tense and fretful, crescendoing to the musical’s climax.
Lyrically, Sondheim pens a libretto that is as poetic and playful as his music. Internal rhymes and rhythm being a speciality. There aren’t any predictable or groan-worthy couplets here: just surprising and joy-inducing lines that bounce through the score and really draws you into the music.
Direction & Production
For a musical that was originally penned for a vast Broadway stage with a full orchestral score, and has since been done recently as such in the West End, reducing the show into the minuscule space was always going to be a challenge. But producers David Adkin and Tony Green have ended up with some of the most tenacious, inspired, and innovative productions to have ever happened on the fringe. Whilst some of the text has been given the chop to make the small-scale production flow unabated, nothing of the charm of the musical has been lost. Their myriad surprises and ingenuities don’t just merely accommodate this behemoth of a musical, but manages to enhance it.
Most of this can be found in Rachel Stone’s set design. It’s essentially the one set that suggests all those that happen, with nothing but a few wooden boxed to play with. But there are many surprises that help the audience imagine and distinguish each place and moment from the last. Tables rise up out of the floor,and gauzes uncover hidden cubby-holes. particularly ingenious is Sweeney’s chair. In countless production has usually opted for a vertical setting, Stone doesn’t let the absence of a below stage pit deter her from making it work just as effectively. Whilst it seems like a trifle to go on about a piece of furniture, once you’ve seen the musical you’ll understand just how critical getting the chair right in relation to the rest of the musical.
But it’s other little touches that are absolutely fantastic. Particularly, the tangled network of piping in the ceiling that look purely decorative, actually drip water onto cast iron grates at one point, creating an stunning soundscape that is a jaw-dropping coup de grace. Stone’s set is also greatly augmented by Simon Getin Thomas’ lightening, that does some marvellous things with colour and back-lighting to help bolster what’s happening on stage, and really denote those changes of place without props of scenery.
Derek Anderson also does a brilliant job at directing the show with a small cast on an even smaller stage. He manages to not only find space for the busy going-ons of Sweeney’s London, but sometimes turns it into a meticulous maelstrom of tightly knit activity. The only things that remind you of the size of the theatre space is that fact that, if you’re in the front row, your knees are literally up against the stage, and if at the ends of them, you’ll end up having to have actors squeezing past you down the aisle to reach the stage at points.
But it’s Anderson’s treatment of the characters that is the most interesting. Whereas countless productions of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street see’s Sweeney as a formidable and domineering character, and Mrs. Lovett as mad and completely delude, Anderson has tried something different. Here, Mrs. Lovett is conniving and in total control of her faculties. What’s more, she’s a lot more aware of Todd’s ever-distancing interest in her, rather than holding onto some obsessed pipe-dream. In contrast, Sweeney here is almost too mild mannered and docile to be believed capable of carrying out his blood-soaked spree: a bit too weedy and pathetic to actually do anything about the gross injustice he’s suffered. Thus, you get the sense that Mrs. Lovett is the brains and means of the entire operation, rather than just a clingy, and somewhat batty, convenience to Sweeney. Whilst it’s a bit difficult to accept if you know the musical, and it’s most famed productions – especially Sweeney’s characterisations – it’s actually one that works, even if it initially irks.
You could not ask for a better cast here. Headlining, is the indomitable David Badella in the title role. But Badella, although brilliant here, isn’t actually the main event. Even though the chance to see him perform with his utterly lucious crushed-velvet baritone voice of his in such close quarters, he’s upstaged (in minutia, might I add) by Sarah Ingram and the rest of the cast.
Mark McKerracher as Judge Turpin is suitably unhinged and devious, accompanied by a wondrously flamboyant Chris Coleman as Beadle Banford, who minces about like some fiendish incarnation of Larry Grayson. Mikeala Newton is also wonderful as Tobias Ragg, injecting a wonderfully boyish innocence into the fray, as well as performing “Not While I’m Around” with a sweet and lilting grace.
But Ingram really steals the show. Embracing every inch of Anderson’s interpretation of Mrs. Lovett, she’s supreme. Streetwise, manipulative, direct, and in charge, she’s a revelation. Every moment of her time on stage is viscous and elating. You almost feel her character should have gotten what she wanted at the end of it all, rather than what she gets. Ingram is a presence that puts both Angela Lansbury and Patti LuPone (my two favourite Mrs. Lovett’s) to shame as a theatrical force beyond reckoning.
If you’ve never seen this before, or if you have only the film adaptation to go by, this is the perfect gateway drug to Sondheim and the beginning of a lifelong addiction to this musical. But what really marks this production out as spectacular is that if, like me, you know the musical inside out, you should still be prepared to be surprised and astonished every crotchet and throat-slit of the way: a real testament to just how outstanding this production is. This is a production that every future version of this musical will be judged by. The West End? Let them eat pie!
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street plays at the Twickenham Theatre, London, TW1 3QS, until 4 October 2014. Tickets are £15 (concessions available). To book, visit www.twickenhamtheatre.com.