first night

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Harry Twining takes a trip to the barber shop with DULOG's first show of the year.

There was no denying Sweeney Todd’s popularity from the moment I came in sight of The Assembly Rooms. The queues of hopeful theatre-goers spilled into the streets, eagerly awaiting this sold-out first night (a real rarity for the venue). Therefore, I took my seat in the bustling theatre with a sense of high expectation. And despite a few first night wrinkles, I was not disappointed.

The first thing which struck me as the curtains opened was the decision to have the superb band, conducted by Alex Bromwich, in full view of the audience, which allowed full projection and appreciation of the music with a surprising lack of distraction. Their efforts created a sustained, menacing atmosphere with which to open the show, aided by gloomy lighting and swirling smoke. However, the chorus who began the tale of Sweeney Todd seemed at first to be too quiet for the dramatic swell of the music, occasionally causing key exposition to be lost. Furthermore, their faces lacked the energetic emotion required to captivate the audience. However, this was soon rectified as the show progressed and gained its footing, and to my mind the chorus became one of the more engaging parts of the musical, with eerie choreography and spine-chilling harmonies pitched to perfection, especially evident in the transition into the disturbing asylum scene.

When it came to singing, Elliot Mather as the titular barber was very impressive indeed. His voice was rich with emotion, ranging from the low breaking of sorrow to the animalistic rage and energy of his epiphany. However, it was a shame that most of his facial expression was limited to a scowl until the end of the first act. Despite this, Mather’s comic timing was excellent when required, providing fantastic chemistry with Sophie Forster’s Mrs. Lovett, although his voice sometimes overpowered her own during the more complicated harmonies. This was an unfortunate issue for many of the songs and characters, as they relied on clear diction to make the witty and poignant lyrics heard and appreciated. Forster excels in her role as the unscrupulous pie-maker, her eyes lighting up as she coerces would-be customers into buying her goods, faultlessly moulding her tempo to the thought process of her plots with an excellent sense of comedy. I was particularly impressed by her ability to sing well, and with a convincing cockney accent to boot, making her character entertaining from both perspectives.

Yet, with the sheer size of the cast, there were inevitably going to be some weaker links. Although a beautiful singer, Florence Russell seemed to play a rather flat and one-dimensional Johanna, with little variation of emotion, especially in scenes with her ‘father’. Her chemistry with love interest Anthony (Arthur Lewis) also seemed to be lacking. Likewise, despite his obvious singing talent, Lewis didn’t always achieve a convincing delivery of his lines. That said, the character’s love for Johanna successfully shone through on significant occasions, especially during their first smitten encounter beneath her bedroom window. This piece of staging was particularly effective, with Russell beautifully singing high above her admirer behind a softly backlit sheet of gauze. This took a more sinister turn by the second act, with a menacing green light signifying the bedroom’s transformation into a mental asylum, ingeniously linking the theme of Johanna’s perpetual imprisonment from the world by her cruel guardian, Judge Turpin (Charlie Keable). Keable managed to portray a coldly controlled and convincing antagonist, without becoming overblown in his delivery. The scene where his conflicting conscience explodes into self-flagellation was all the more disturbing for its contrast, adding depth to what may otherwise have been a standard panto-esque villain.

Despite the success of the above staging, there were issues with some of its other elements. Although necessary so as not to block the action on stage, the positioning of Mrs. Lovett’s shop at floor level meant there was a slight visibility issue for some of the audience, with some of Forster’s significant actions lost. The elevation of Todd’s barber shop at the stage’s centre also proved an issue, as it reduced the stage space for other locations to be conceived. This was particularly noticeable with the movement of Turpin and Beadle from the courtroom to the barbers, resulting in a rather slow pace and a slight drop in the energy of the transition. This added to the occasional static nature of the choreography. Lighting transitions in general were crisp, yet some suffered from slight delays or sudden jarring changes. Although these may be put down to first night errors, sometimes these changes seemed a conscious decision, one I personally found distracting and sometimes nonsensical in their vibrancy and timing. Having said this, there were some very effective technical moments, such as the use of dramatic underlighting and smoke, which created terrifying shadows to really highlight the sense of madness and rage running throughout the performance.

Further praise must go Joe McWilliam as Pirelli, Jasper Millard as Tobias and Rosie Weston as The Beggar Woman. McWilliam perfected his absurd Italian accent, reducing the audience into fits of laughter with his flamboyant delivery and mannerisms, which were aided greatly by an extremely eye-catching pair of pantaloons (kudos to costume designer Harriet Billington). Millard convincingly portrayed a character far younger than his years through his posture and way of speech, creating a sympathetic tension for this unfortunate street orphan, without losing the character’s cheeky appeal and humour. The Beggar Woman was an equally sympathetic character, with her madness and tragedy heartbreakingly brought to life by Weston’s wide eyes and pitiful cries. However, this was slightly mediated at the show’s beginning by her speed and shrillness, meaning some of the lyrics were lost in hysteria. Tom Harper also deserves a mention for his role as Beadle. Although not quite up to the singing standard of the rest of the principle actors, Harper’s character oozed slime and arrogance from every sentence and creepy gesture of the hand.

All in all, with a generally fantastic cast and crew, director Qasim Salam has created an atmospheric and emotionally charged show, with far more to it than simply catchy songs. This is a production that they should all be proud of, and one which I would urge anyone to attend for a well-spent evening. 

17 November 2016

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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