It’s incredible to think that a show as powerful and perennially popular as Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd only chalked up a four months’ run at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in its first London showing. I clearly remember accompanying the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle to that show. I loved it; I think some of the gruesomeness of the production brought out her squeamishness, but for decades afterwards she would never fail to delight at the thought that “privates is extra” when it comes to a pie made from a General. The cast was astounding – Denis Quilley, Sheila Hancock, Andrew C Wadsworth, Michael Staniforth all at the top of their game. It’s a show that’s stayed with me all my life since, and I know that Original Cast Soundtrack like the back of my hand. Since 1980, it’s had revival after revival and has also made its way into film. Mrs C and I enjoyed the very different 2004 Watermill production, where the cast all played their own instruments on stage (as has become a Watermill trademark). There’s no end to how this show can keep coming back in different guises – directors’ imaginations are the only limit.
It’s a perfect show for the R&D Youth Theatre to tackle. Very challenging, with some iconic roles and demanding songs, lots of scene changes and comic business. The thought of this being performed by an amateur group would normally bring me out in a cold sweat, and as for Mrs C – well you simply wouldn’t get her out of the house to see it (we’ve seen some stinkers over the years, to be honest). But the Youth Theatre is no ordinary amateur group. In fact, I can’t think of them as amateur, they’re pre-professional. Yes this show was indeed a challenge, but one to which they rose and in many cases exceeded all expectations (and, having seen last year’s astonishingly good Spring Awakening, my expectations were very high indeed).
I’m sure you know the story – ace barber Benjamin Barker returns from Australia after being transported on a trumped-up charge, feeling more than a little resentful about how he’s been treated and how generally vile the world and its inhabitants are. He then re-invents himself as Sweeney Todd to seek revenge on those who caused his misery – Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford in particular – but he also shaves the faces of gentlemen who never thereafter were heard of again. What happens next, well that’s the play, and he wouldn’t want me to give it away. I know, I’m quoting.
As soon as you entered the Royal auditorium, you realised this was a production with top quality standards. Carl Davies’ intriguing set lurked behind a torn backdrop, which split into an upstairs, which could represent Mr Todd’s tonsorial parlour and a downstairs housing the pie shop; but could also suggest the many other locations in the show. The excellent little orchestra under the direction of Fergal O’Mahony were squeezed into the tiny pit at the front of the stage and created a fantastic sound. We were spellbound watching how Joley Cragg darted about the place attending to all the percussion needs.
You need a performer of some magnitude to carry off the role of Todd – and fortunately the Youth Theatre has Brett Mason, astoundingly good in Spring Awakening, and who once again filled the stage with his authoritative presence. Mr Mason’s gift is for acting through singing – give him a song and he will bring its meaning to life, crystal clear and full of emotion. It’s an ability that makes him perfect for this kind of role. I was very impressed with his moving “Barber and his wife”, and even more so with the brilliantly dramatic “Epiphany”. He was superbly matched by Amara Browning as Mrs Lovett, with her superb feel for the spitefulness, tenderness and comedy of the role, and who sang like a dream. Fantastically cheeky and irrepressibly self-confident Ms Browning is surely a star of the future. I was particularly impressed with the way both she and Mr Mason tackled complex songs whilst still acting with props – a skill that’s easy to underestimate. I loved her performance of “The Worst Pies in London”, singing whilst preparing pastry, chasing fleas and wielding her chopper. Similarly, Mr Mason effortlessly sang about Johanna whilst carefully preparing his razor, lathering and shaving his customers and deftly dispatching them, knowing that every pair of eyes in the packed Royal auditorium was going to be glued to that razor, and watching for the spurt of blood. We were not disappointed!
I was genuinely astounded when Michael Ryan, as Anthony, appeared and started singing “No Place Like London”. What a fantastic voice he has, and he gives a performance of such huge confidence and quality that I sensed he stopped the whole audience in their tracks. Surely here’s another performer who ought to have a terrific career ahead of him. He and Miranda Spencer-Pearson as Johanna made a great team, with their duets full of wonderful harmonies and looking absolutely perfect for their roles. I loved how Ms Spencer-Pearson expressed both the sadness and hopefulness of Johanna, the metaphorical caged-bird herself.
Then there was another superb performance by Stephen Bennett as Tobias – proving himself skilled as a showman in “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir”, convincingly portraying an overworked and rather bewildered waiter in “God that’s Good”, but most of all giving us a very touching and emotional “Not While I’m Around”, showing his love for Mrs L, and his distrust of Todd. Mr Bennett captured Tobias’ extreme innocence whilst never “downgrading” the character to the mere simpleton that the other characters would have you believe he is. Mrs C and I were stunned at how good he was. A very credible interpretation of the role – here’s yet another young man who’s going to do amazing things I’m sure.
As the villainous Judge and Beadle, Matthew Parsons and Ryan McLean cut imposing and disquieting figures. It’s very hard for someone young to represent an old and gruff character like the Judge but I think Mr Parsons did as good a job as I could imagine anyone doing it – creepily lusting after Johanna, merrily pom-pom-pomming as he awaited his Todd-type makeover, and superbly harmonising in his songs. I do think “Pretty Women” is the great underestimated masterpiece of this show; a beautiful melody, clever lyrics and a subtle blend of the loving and the downright lascivious. Ryan McLean’s Beadle seemed a reasonable enough guy at first, until he clinically eliminated the caged bird Anthony had bought for Johanna. Sitting at the harmonium, singing “Parlour Songs”, he was the perfect embodiment of a viper masquerading as a spaniel. Intimidating, wicked and very believable, his is another voice that blended beautifully with the others.
Carrying off a difficult role with great aplomb, I very much enjoyed Bethaney Coulson’s performance as the Beggar Woman, bringing out the pathos and sadness in her collecting alms from Anthony and the short shrift she receives from Todd and Mrs L, as well as the rather tragic desperation of her side-line as a wannabe whore. Nathan Stroud was a very entertaining mountebank Pirelli, preening and pontificating to great effect, and I loved the innovative introduction of his two groupie girls, beating each other up in order to get the best profile shots as they pose with their star. The whole ensemble were terrific, venomously telling “the tale of Sweeney Todd” as they eyeballed us on the steps either side of the stage, brilliantly throwing themselves into being the rowdy and pie-smearing customers in Mrs Lovett’s shop, or incarcerated in Fogg’s asylum. The whole “City on Fire” sequence was fantastic.
So – another Youth Theatre triumph. I am in complete awe of these people. They act and sing amazingly well. And it’s wonderful that the Royal and Derngate give them support and resources so that they can have the thrill of giving performances like that at such an atmospheric venue as the Royal. The company goes from strength to strength. If you haven’t seen them before, you’re missing an absolute treat.