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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Sweeney Todd
Trafalgar Studios Summer 2004, New Ambassadors Autumn-Winter 2005

It's not quite a Stephen Sondheim festival, but with A Funny Thing Happened at the National and now this transfer from Berkshire's Watermill Theatre, Londoners can encounter Sondheim at his lightest and at his most dramatic and operatic, both in productions about as good as you can imagine.

Sweeney Todd has in fact been done by opera companies as well as the large-scale first productions in New York and London and the chamber production at the National a decade ago.

Now director John Doyle takes it to an even smaller scale, with a cast of nine, all of them (This is a Doyle trademark) doubling as orchestra, bringing their instruments onstage and accompanying each other - and often themselves - as they sing.

Hugh Wheeler's book tells the familiar story of the murderous barber and the opportunistic pie lady who uses the byproducts of his work as ingredients of hers, building a personal drama on Todd's crusade of vengeance against those who stole his family and his livelihood in the past.

And Sondheim sets it to music alternately sweetly melodic and dramatically discordant. Indeed, the distinction is not always great, as two of the sweetest melodies in the show, Johanna and Pretty Women, accompany stylised and symbolised onstage murders.

This production captures the darkness and flashes of humour at least as successfully as any I've seen before, and in some ways better.

I've always been bothered by a clash in tone and musical styles between the dark plot of passion, murder and madness, and the broad comedy of the pie lady's scenes and songs (done that way, I'm sure, to attract Angela Lansbury to the role in the original production).

Doyle solves that problem by reducing the extremes of both halves of the play. While Karen Mann as Mrs. Lovett is not the strongest singer onstage and sometimes has to strain to reach the notes, she makes the pie woman considerably less of a cartoon than others have, and so she doesn't seem so out of place.

Meanwhile, Paul Hegarty's Todd at first seems underplayed, but director and performer know what they're doing. The dramatic plot and score are strong enough that they don't have to be pushed and underlined, and the piece's power builds inexorably to a powerful intensity.

(It still bothers me that the powerful dramatic climax of Act One, Sweeney's decision to go on an indiscriminate murder spree, isn't allowed to end the act, but is followed immediately by Have a Little Priest, a comic duet about potential pie ingredients. But with lyrics like 'shepherd's pie peppered with actual shepherd', I'm not going to complain too much.)

Serving as his own designer, director Doyle solves the problems of reducing the production to an intimate scale inventively, letting a coffin serve a multitude of set functions, and restaging the ending in a way that is more powerful than the somewhat cluttered original.

While Rebecca Jackson's Beggar Woman could have been played a little more frighteningly, Colin Wakefield is satisfyingly unctuous as the villain and David Ricardo-Pearce effectively earnest as the young lead in the romantic subplot.

The only weak link is Rebecca Jenkins, clearly cast more for her expressive cello playing than her singing, and too lumpen for the ingenue and too prone to unintelligible gabble in the very rapid songs she's given.


Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Sweeney Todd - Trafalgar Studios 2004