Review – Sweeney Todd, R&D Youth Theatre, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 11th July 2014

Sweeney ToddIt’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.

Original Sweeney ToddIt’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).

Beadle BamfordI’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.

Youth TheatreAs 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.

Lovett and ToddYou 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!

Brett MasonI 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.

Pirelli and his groupiesThen 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.

Michael RyanAs 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.

God That's GoodCarrying 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.

EnsembleSo – 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.

Review – Spring Awakening, Royal and Derngate’s Youth Theatre’s Musical Company, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 1st March 2013

Spring AwakeningFrank Wedekind’s original play of Spring Awakening was written in 1891 but didn’t see light of day on the British stage until after the 1968 Theatres Act lifted the requirement for plays to be subject to the Lord Chamberlain’s red pen before performance. Are you wondering why it was banned? It was probably to do with its representations of homosexuality, masturbation, sado-masochism, abortion and suicide. Before 1968, you’d have been lucky to get just one of those past the censor – but together that bunch of bad boys would have created one big heart attack for the Examiner of Plays.

I’ve not read the play, but I was very keen to see Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s musical adaptation that was so successful on Broadway, but that fared so poorly in the UK, despite winning four Olivier awards. I remember feeling a severe disappointment that it had closed before I got the chance to see it. Therefore I was delighted to find out that the local Youth Theatre group attached to the Royal and Derngate had chosen Spring Awakening as their latest production.

I will be honest with you, gentle reader. Mrs Chrisparkle and I have seen some shocking amateur productions. Mrs C still bears emotional scars and even has horror flashbacks over a couple of them. I had faith that the local group would be good – the Community Actors Group here did an excellent Our Country’s Good a couple of years ago – and I thought that Spring Awakening itself would probably be entertaining enough to get us through the evening unscathed even if the production wasn’t that great.

Well I was half right. It’s a really moving, daring but highly enjoyable musical with some excellent songs and a gripping story. But what I hadn’t predicted was that the young performers in the company would be so able, so convincing, so assured and so watchable. The combination of the keen and talented young company and a bold, high quality musical turned it into a superb evening of theatre.

It was held in the Underground, which is a very useful space for a small production like this. It was staged in traverse, with two rows of seats on either side of a long narrow stage. Stumps and branches came up from the floor and overhung the ceiling, and the stage area itself had a very ornate branch pattern on the floor so that the feeling of forest permeated the space. At one end sat the four musicians under the leadership of Simon Egerton, who all played the score with clarity and emotion, and were the perfect musical support to the performers on stage.

Spring Awakening againThe story concerns a group of young people in this 19th century German village where morals are strict and there’s little scope for self-expression. And they’re all feeling those teenage urges. Moritz feels anxious and guilty about his fantasy dreams but Melchior, the charismatic boy in the class (there’s always one) explains them for him in an essay, which Moritz devours. Georg is powerlessly enamoured with his music teacher’s bust and Hanschen gets to grips with his longing (literally) whilst hiding from his mother. The girls are even more innocent. Wendla, who is frustrated by not knowing about the birds and the bees, and whose mother refuses to explain it to her, meets up with Melchior and a relationship (of sorts) is formed. There’s a scene where Wendla asks Melchior to beat her because she knows one of her friends gets the same kind of abuse from her father, and you feel that Wendla just wants to experience some physical stimulus to prove to herself she’s alive. Reluctantly Melchior complies, and it’s a fascinating and shocking insight into how a sado-masochistic fetish can develop. Eventually Melchior and Wendla have sex without her really knowing what is happening to her. Is it rape? You decide. From there it’s a downward spiral, with Moritz failing school (undeservingly, through the devious manipulation of the headteacher) and subsequently committing suicide; and, with Melchior sent to a correctional school, Wendla shows signs of pregnancy, resulting in her mother taking her to a back street abortionist, from which Wendla dies as a consequence. It’s an extremely moving story but strangely not depressing. The characters have such a life force about them that you feel that mere death won’t hold them back, and indeed the spirits of both Moritz and Wendla return to join in the final choruses. Why on earth did this show did not last longer in London?

Considering the young age of the cast, there are some performances of extraordinary depth and maturity. Brett Mason as Melchior has a superb stage presence and an amazing ability to act while singing. Whenever his character began a song, Brett Mason projected a brightness and a conviction that many professional actors would envy. His self-discovery of a predilection for sadism was horrific but fantastically well done. His reaction when he discovers Wendla’s grave and realises what has happened in his absence actually made both Mrs C and I shed a tear – now that’s impressive. He sang really strongly throughout the whole show, but he carried off the disarmingly funny song “Totally f***ed” with particular aplomb – and superb support from the rest of the cast.

Wendla was played by Nicole Read who was completely convincing as this child who is almost a woman, desperate to know more of life and to break free of the stifling family environment. She was heart-breaking in the way she blindly stumbled into the path of the abortionist, ignorant of the dangers and the repercussions of the act. She was scarily vulnerable in the sado-masochism scene, and to cap it all, is an excellent singer too. It was Wendla’s friend Martha who told all the other girls about how her father took her belt to her, and Bethany Coulson played this scene superbly movingly, suspecting there might be something wrong about her father’s behaviour but believing she was equally guilty; being scared by her own honesty and fearing for her own future; it was another tear-jerking moment.

Spring Awakening one more timeMatthew Parsons as Moritz also gave a superb performance, being picked on in that opening Latin lesson scene (why were Latin lessons always so terrifying? It brought back horrible memories for me), desperate to learn more about sex from Melchior, sweating under the pressure of school work, having a bit of a thing for Melchior’s mum (a very mature and enjoyable performance by Katy Sturgess), refusing the chance of an escape with Ilse despite his better judgment, and with a final resignation feeling he had no option but to take his own life. He delivered all these scenes with immaculate honesty and sensitivity. When he actually put the revolver in his mouth and pulled the trigger, a man next to me let out a horrified “Oh my God” – that’s how much the audience believed in and cared about what was happening.

Stephen Bennett as Hanschen brought out all the humour of the role during his masturbation scene – producing lots of embarrassed giggling from the audience, not surprisingly – and his scenes with Ernst, his inamorato, very convincingly played by Michael Ryan, were extraordinarily mature and touching. There’s a scene where all the young characters are in church, trying desperately hard to restrain themselves from giving in to their physical desires – visually a very effective moment. Hanschen sits behind Ernst and Stephen Bennett’s agony at simply not being able to touch Ernst on the back was incredibly well done. The eventual seduction scene was very tender and when he finally takes Ernst’s hand and leads him offstage it felt like quite a triumph.

I also really enjoyed the performance of Hannah Saxton, both as the bitch of a Latin teacher Frau Sonnenstich, and as the free spirit Ilse, nourished by her Bohemian lifestyle. When Ilse cannot convince Moritz to spend time with her, her sadness and annoyance is very believable. She’s also a very expressive singer, and she sang “Blue Wind” with great purity and delicacy. And I should also mention Louis Jordan’s Georg very amusingly goggling at Fräulein Grossebustenhalter’s assets. But it’s an extremely fine ensemble performance and everyone contributed superbly well to the whole evening’s entertainment.

The performers conveyed a level of dramatic tension and conviction acting that was better than some professional productions we have seen. This excellent young cast is a credit both to the Royal and Derngate and their town. It was only on for three nights – I hope you were able to see it. I’d really like to see this production again!