Review: A bloody good Sweeney Todd at Derby Theatre

five star

Stephen Sondheim’s cult musical Sweeney Todd – the Demon Barber of Fleet Street first opened on Broadway in 1979, winning good reviews and great audience acclaim. The original production played for 557 performances with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury in the lead roles namely: Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett. There have been many revivals of ‘Sweeney Todd’ across the world including full scale operatic productions, a recent Olivier Award winning production with Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton set in the 1950s and much smaller intimate chamber treatments. Of course cinema goers will be familiar with the fairly recent film adaptation starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter. Despite neither of them being classically trained singers Tim Burton’s film adaptation was still a critical success and maybe introduced the delights of Sondheim’s works to a new audience; an audience who may also be drawn to see a theatre production. One hopes.

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And right now there is no better production to witness this gruesome musical tale of the 19th Century barber’s bloody revenge than the current co-production wowing audiences at Derby Theatre and then transferring to the Mercury Theatre Colchester.

Sweeney Todd at Derby Theatre … as hot as one of Mrs Lovett’s pies!

Daniel Buckroyd directs with razor sharp precision and the full cast mix of professionals and local (Derby) community players blend seamlessly in this ‘hot as one of Mrs Lovatt’s pies’ show.

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Right from the opening company chorus of The Ballad of Sweeney Todd this disturbing yet darkly comical – sung through show – grips. Drip by bloody drip we clamour to hear the brooding emotional tale of Benjamin Barker; former Fleet Street barber turned unwitting convict, as he returns to London under a new name – Sweeney Todd. Revenge is in the air and it is palpable.

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Hugh Maynard is utterly perfect as Sweeney Todd. His vital muscular presence and his strong voice constantly commands the stage in the character. He is especially good in such dark brooding  numbers as The Barber and His Wife and My Friends. His relationship with Mrs Lovett (Sophie Louise Dann) is electric and Dann herself is richly joyous as the opportunistic grubby pie maker. Dann’s rendition of The Worst Pies In London is the best this reviewer has ever enjoyed and there is equal joy in Maynard and Dann’s duets A Little Priest and By The Sea.

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Balancing this story of Todd and Lovett’s desire for blood thirsty revenge with, added meat pie profit, is the poignant love story of Johanna (Christina Bennington) and Anthony Hope (Jack Wilcox). Bennington brings out all the sweetness and wretched loneliness of her Johanna and the handsome Wilcox is very believable and vocally assured as her besotted love struck would be rescuer. Their duet Kiss Me is both engaging and full of tender playful humour. One’s heart goes out to them as they try to escape the evil clutches and dubious intents of Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford.

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asc_9397On that note let us have a look at the bad guys. Simon Shorten is brilliantly eccentric and vocally terrific as boasting barber Signor Pirelli, an untrustworthy man who turns very nasty on a visit to Todd’s new barber’s shop. The corrupt and menacing duo Judge Turpin (David Durham) and Beadle Bamford (Julian Hoult) are genuinely scary and find they may eventually get more than a close shave and short back and sides haircut in Todd’s revengeful barber’s chair. Both are excellent vocally.

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For those who happen not to have seen the show it would be a shame to reveal the actual identity of the crazy beggar woman played with great energy and panache by Kara Lane. Whist bawdy and amusing at the top of the show her character soon takes on darker hues.

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asc_9123Abused and desperate for love little Tobias Ragg is beautifully played by the excellent Ryan Heenan. His portrayal simmers with youthful energy and confidence and his gullible circumstances in progressively darker situations get the audience sympathy vote.

All of the entire cast singing in this production is note perfect and Sondheim’s clever lyrics get a proper chance to be appreciated for their meaning and wit.

The amazing multi -venue revolving set designed by Sara Perks (set and fab Victorian costumes) is like something one might see in a West End show and the way that it is used in the production gives the show great focus, an historical base and a variety of visual theatrics and fluidity.

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Adam McCready is sound designer extraordinaire for Sweeney Todd and the atmospheric lighting, designed by David Kidd, fully aids the score. A fine example of this would be the chilling lighting effects for the  murders. The combination of sharp lighting combined with the music achieves a ‘gasp out loud’ effect on the audience.

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Hidden away at the back and sides of the stage are the live musicians under the direction of musical director Michael Haslam. Naturally the live musical score is as much a vital part of any musical, as the singing. Haslam’s command of Sondheim’s tricky score is superb!

This smokin’ production is an absolute must see!

This smokin’ production is an absolutely must see so catch it while you still can!

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Reviewer Phil Lowe

Sweeney Todd runs at Derby Theatre until Sat 22 October.

Photo credits Robert Day

Recommended for ages 12+

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