Loughborough Town Hall
7th March 2023
The sad passing of Stephen Sondheim in 2021 gave theatregoers a chance to reflect on the legendary composer and lyricist’s formidable body of work, which is widely regarded as some of the finest musical theatre ever written. One of his most famous creations was ‘Sweeney Todd’, written back in 1979, which became a huge hit with critics and audiences thanks to its deliciously macabre tale of murder, revenge, and pastry. Proving that musicals aren’t always full of sunshine and rainbows, ‘Sweeney Todd’ treads a truly dark path through a grimy 19th century London, and as Loughborough’s LAOS company shows us this week, revenge is a dish best served not cold, but fresh out of the oven.
Tormented barber Sweeney Todd (Ryan Sargisson) returns to London after being exiled years earlier by Judge Turpin (Meng Khaw), allowing the despicable Turpin to steal Todd’s wife Lucy and keep their daughter Johanna as his ward. Todd happens upon piemaker Mrs Lovett (Alix Ashurst), who tells Todd everything that has happened to his family since he’s been away and returns his barbers’ blades to him. Driven mad by revenge, Todd offers his shaving services to the locals, hoping to get Turpin into his chair and on the receiving edge of his razor. An impulsive moment leaves Todd and Lovett on the brink of a macabre money-making enterprise, but with suspicions rising as fast as the body count, Todd’s obsession with Turpin threatens to consume him in a fire even hotter than Lovett’s grisly oven.
Sondheim’s work isn’t always the easiest to click into on first viewing, but ‘Sweeney Todd’ is one of his more accessible works, being a tasty tale of terror that bubbles along on a higher number of memorable tunes than many Sondheim works. His unique gift for language, rhyme and rhythm is hugely evident throughout the score, lacing the material with humour and dread in equal measure. The musical changes tone on a knife-edge, flitting from black comedy to chilling horror within a few moments. While never scary, a palpable sense of menace flows through the show, setting it apart from most musical theatre into a truly one-of-a-kind show.
For the first performance of an amateur show, LAOS’ ‘Sweeney Todd’ is impressively assured and competently delivered. LAOS show no signs of being intimidated by the sheer magnitude of the show, and have created a fantastic production. Director Sally Bruton doesn’t shy away from striving to deliver the sinister threat of the material, retaining the dry humour but keeping things tense throughout. It does feel a shame that the ends of songs aren’t structured to allow applause from the audience, and perhaps even more so, the cast don’t appear at the end of the show to take their much-deserved bows. Pace also starts to drag a little in the second act (,not helped by the lion’s share of the stronger songs being in the first act). The show does however remain engaging throughout. It features a fairly static and modest set but uses the dual levels well, and the mechanics of Todd’s executioner chair and Lovett’s pie oven are impressively delivered. The show also sounds great, with the orchestra of ten (led by music director James Stevens) delivering a rich and rounded sound.
The talented ensemble sound great in the choral numbers, and the show benefits massively from some fantastic leading turns from its principal performers. Ryan Sargisson makes for a commanding lead as Todd, hitting great levels of menace as he works through his victims, and performing a frankly brilliant rendition of “Epiphany”. Alix Ashurst matches him as the wicked Mrs Lovett, bringing echoes of the great Angela Lansbury to her ditzy demented baker. The pair have fantastic chemistry and work together brilliantly, particularly during “A Little Priest” and delivering the humour in every word. Daniel Robinson is also excellent as Tobias, bringing a live-wire eccentricity to the poor young lad surrounded by madness, and performing “Not While I’m Around” wonderfully. Between them, Ashurst, Sargisson and Robinson give near-professional quality performances, fully committed to their complex characters and coping brilliantly with the intricacies of Sondheim’s lyrics.
For those who like their musicals dark, ‘Sweeney Todd’ is as razor-sharp as they come, and LAOS should be very proud of what they’ve achieved here. With excellent performances and a fearlessness in the face of some staggering material, this ‘Sweeney Todd’ shines like the blades of the man himself. A “Bloody” good production.
‘Sweeney Todd’ runs at the Loughborough Town Hall until Saturday 11th March.
Performance runtime 2 hours 45 minutes including interval