The blood flows freely in this darkly thrilling production of Sondheim’s extraordinary musical.
The intimate setting of the Twickenham Theatre, above the London Road pub, intensifies the visceral nature of Stephen Sondheim’s musical about a murderous pair and their hot, human-meat pies – surely the strangest premise for perhaps the most stunning piece of musical theatre ever written.
Olivia Ward’s excellent costumes and Rachel Stone’s set, with its dingy wooden floors and sinister metal grilles, evoke the sordid, smoky world of Victorian London, to which Sweeney Todd returns incognito after 15 years as a wrongfully convicted prisoner in Botany Bay.
David Bedella is a dark-eyed, mesmerising Sweeney, his rich voice full of bitter rage and frustration in No Place Like London, before discovering his new calling as an avenger of past wrongs – and slitter of throats in a barber’s chair chillingly built for the purpose.
His indifference to the blandishments of struggling pie-shop owner Mrs Lovett stirs her to ever-greater efforts to engage his interest, and the brilliant Sarah Ingram produces a beautifully rounded character, capable of unbounded love and unbelievable cruelty. She captures all the absurd comedy of the role, as well as Lovett’s increasingly ruthless nature. The sinister change that comes over her features when young Tobias (the charming, sparky Mikaela Newton) reveals his suspicions about Todd during Not While I’m Around is truly chilling.
It’s extraordinary that this is a directorial debut for Derek Anderson, who has created a crisp, sleek show that manages to look effortless, though cramming this many characters into such a small space is a work of choreography in itself.
Musical director Benjamin Holder does a terrific job both as pianist and conductor of the band – Matt Ramplin on piano, violinist Matthew Atkins and percussionist Alice Angliss – who play with all the sharpness, accuracy and vivacity demanded by the score.
There’s heartfelt singing in Green Finch and Linnet Bird from Johanna – Genevieve Kingsford – whose luminous beauty provokes the repugnant Judge Turpin to decide he must marry his young ward. Mark McKerracher is as brutal, imposing and arrogant a Judge as you could hope for, who struggles with his conscience in the self-flagellating Johanna. But the fight doesn’t last long, and soon he’s convinced himself that poor Johanna – whose heart is already secretly given to Josh Tevendale’s handsome Anthony – is the lucky one.
In this self-delusion he’s ably assisted by unctuous Beadle Banford, Chris Coleman, whose impressive vocal athletics are allowed full rein in the Parlour Songs he imposes very entertainingly on Mrs Lovett.
The humblest cast member is the beggar woman – Zoe Curlett – whose superbly ribald offers to passing gents are delivered with an initial flurry that soon subsides back into despair.
This is a revenger’s tragedy that’s up-close-and-personal enough for the gore and shaving foam to spray beyond the stage. Bloody marvellous.
First published 17 September 2014