first night

Sweeney Todd and the String of Pearls

And you thought horse was bad ... Ben Weaver-Hincks uncovers a scandal at Mrs Lovett's pie shop.

A night-time promenade musical in Durham’s atmospheric Indoor Markets sounds enticing enough; but throw in a few period costumes, a touch of the gothic, and a retelling of a Victorian favourite, and you have just about the most appealing concept to hit Durham in years. Sweeney Todd and the String of Pearls promises much - and once you’ve seen it, unlike Todd’s barber shop, you’ll be wanting a second visit.

Promenade theatre has seemingly taken off in Durham recently, but the test of its success is always the degree to which it uses its venue to tell a story. Another Soup’s Artistic Director, Dave Spencer, shows just what an opportunity the markets present, and it is a wonder they have not been used for this purpose before. In the dim lighting, the cramped alleys become a labyrinth through which we must sometimes follow our guides, and at other times are left free to wander. The feeling that we are somehow trespassing only adds to the sense of having entered a different world. Admittedly, the modern signage breaks the illusion that we’re walking the streets of nineteenth-century London - but the atmosphere is so inviting, so embracing, that it hardly seems to matter.

Of course, the venue has its own challenges. The performance would benefit from even smaller audience numbers, as visibility is often an issue when the crowds struggle to fit into the smaller corners. And the fact that we can often hear bits of other scenes happening simultaneously to our own can be a bit distracting. However, the commitment to immersion is total. Inclusion of audience members in particular scenes is done perfectly - always to advance plot, never gratuitously - even if it proves too much for some of the warier ticketholders.

There are a host of strong performances here to admire. Mike Clarke’s Sweeney Todd is fantastically sinister, with a stiff physicality that causes stirrings of genuine fear. Jess Groocock makes a lot of the innocent Johanna Oakley, with an earnestness that puts even the meekest Dickensian heroine to shame. But it is Idgie Beau who steals the show as Mrs Lovett, the infamous pie-seller. Slipping between murderousness, lechery and comedy, hers is perhaps the most challenging role and she handles it spectacularly.

The production is supported by an impressive new score and a group of talented musicians, who adapt admirably to the unique demands of the space. Vocally, the performances lack confidence and accomplishment, but the current cinematic penchant for musicals performed by vocally untrained actors has its merits, and here too it is the acting and the instrumental music that get top billing. It is partly for this reason that comparisons with the Tim Burton film are inevitable, despite this having a vastly different script, music and concept. Still, like the film, this revels in the gore, finds a great deal of unlikely comedy in its characters and offers a vision of Victorian London that is at once alien and familiar. It is an enticing world to enter and a difficult one to leave.

With script and lyrics by Dave Spencer and music by Jo Turner, it’s rare to see such a fully-realised student-written show on a Durham stage. Such a unique vision, combined with the chance to explore one of Durham’s lesser-appreciated landmarks, is an opportunity not to be missed. A number of outstanding performances, beautiful music and an intriguing location should be enough to convince even the most occasional theatre-goer. Failing that, they might just be tempted by the promise of one of Mrs Lovett’s famous pies - which, I am assured, are completely horse-free.

7 March 2013

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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