Sweeney Todd is about obsession.
Todd is obsessed with revenge. Mrs Lovett is obsessed with respectability and Judge Turpin is obsessed with his ward Joanna. They will all do what ever it takes! Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Miller’s realisation of these obsessions is the one the great creations of musical theatre of the twentieth century.
Mucking up this masterpiece would not be difficult. It is musically and poetically challenging for singers who act or actors who sing. This production at the New Theatre meets the enormous demands of the piece. The Director, Giles Gartrell-Mills, has conjured up a deeply moving and theatrically satisfying production.
The large New Theatre stage is dark and bare. The setting is Dickensian, but some of the characters could be found in a Hogarth painting. The poor and the respectable live cheek by jowl. There is a highly mobile set steered expertly with OHS-defying precision by the ensemble. The action waxes and wanes on and around the set. The starkness of the characters lives is matched by the rawness of the design.
Sometimes a singer who acts is cast in the title role. Justin Cotter is an actor who sings. He prowls, scowls and growls around the stage, and with the flow of the music. His eyes burn with determination. While Justin fumes, Lucy Miller as Mr Lovett, the cockney charmer with a heart of flint, propels the story forward. These are bravura performances!
Into this world comes a variety of vivid characters. Anthony Hope, a crisp sounding tenor, a hopeless romantic, is obsessed with the virginally white Joanna, sung ever so sweetly by Jaime Leigh Johnson. They singly, and together, traverse the dangerous territory of thwarted young lovers with convincing effect.
Byron Watson as the Judge sings with a rich baritone that reflects his extensive operatic experience. I initially thought he was a little stiff, but he too is man on a mission, just as much as Sweeney, albeit much less sympathetically. In contrast we have the wheedling Simon Ward as Beadle Bamford: a chancer and a fixer with a crooked cop’s nose for an opportunity. Simon Ward turns the vocalised sneer at the end of the sentence into high art. He is a villain, but deliciously so!
Tobias Ragg, the boy played with considerable effect by a young woman, Aimee Timmins, escapes from the snake oil salesman to finish up in the pie manufacturing dungeon of Sweeney and Lovett. Her characterisation in this attractive role is matched by that of the beggar, Courtney Glass, who amidst her cravenness and occasional bouts of playful seductiveness, carries a secret that is revealed in its horrible reality toward the end of the show. Michael Jones is a delightfully camp Adolfo Pirelli, whose stage Italian is matched in its the inauthenticity with the accent of his real Irish persona.
The ensemble, four women and four men, sing with power and authority, although at times at the expense of diction. They never leave the stage, or indeed the action, even when they retreat to the back of the stage. Each have their individual moments but together they blend into a formidable unit. One of their number, Daisy Cousens, with a wonderful high soprano voice, fiercely maintains her defiant working class character without in any way upstaging her colleagues in the ensemble scenes. They are a Greek chorus in Victorian weeds
Anchoring all this is a band of three. Musical Director, Liam Kemp, is indefatigable on an upright piano, ably assisted by two string players Anastasia Lonergan and Laura McKinnon. To play Sondheim’s work well is as difficult as to sing it. And Sweeney Todd is probably the most challenging of all.
I have seen this production twice. The first was a preview. The performance was tentative. The performers were trying too hard. Two weeks later the cast had calmed vocally. Instead of performing at full belt, they have pulled back so that they are channeling the poetic words and music to enormous effect in propelling the narrative forward. There is great nuance and subtlety in the singing. Precisely the treatment Sondheim requires! The influence of Assistant Musical director, Vicki Watson, is apparent here as well as much hard work by the cast.
Finally a word about New Theatre itself! It is venerable institution more than eighty years old that has had a rocky history. It seems to be having a revival at the moment. It has done a lot of political musical reviews in its history as well as many performances of Ready River or On the Wallaby, when bankruptcy loomed. To take on this very high-end piece of musical theatre was a high risk proposition, given the paucity of its resources, but it is a triumph of care and commitment. Tickets are going out the door at pace. Get one, two or more – post haste!
New Theatre, Newtown. Playing Thursday to Sunday until 20 December.