Sweeney Todd @ Union Theatre, London

cast list
Christopher Howell, Emma Francis, Stephen Rashbrook, Adam Ellis, Leon Kay, Katie Stokes, David Kristopher-Brown, Nigel Pilkington, Roisin Sullivan, Ross Aldred, Matthew Baker, Hannah Bingham, Michael Burgen, Paul Callen, Danielle Fenemore, Kimberley Ensor, Michelle Williamson, Andrew Swift

directed by
Sasha Regan
The Union Theatre production of Sondheim’s masterpiece includes both a Sweeney Todd who can sing and a chorus!

Normally, this would hardly seem worthy of mention, but following Tim Burton’s, in my opinion, vastly overrated film which featured neither, even the mastery of just these basics felt refreshing.

Set in Victorian London, Sweeney Todd tells of a Fleet Street barber, Benjamin Barker, who was deported to Australia on a trumped up charge because the evil Judge Turpin desired his wife.

Fifteen years later Barker escapes back to London determined to have his revenge on Turpin and his subordinate, Beadle Bamford. Under the guise of Sweeney Todd, he works his way back into society by restoring his barber’s shop, and making his living by slitting the throats of customers and putting them into pies to be sold at Mrs Lovett’s pie shop.
Needless to say this is dark stuff, and the plot contains two great paradoxes. Todd is supposedly avenging common folk by attacking the corrupt masters who treat them like insects. He, however, does the same by killing scores of them in order to reach the top man. The other irony is that he is aided by Mrs Lovett who uses her human pie business to work her way into his affections with a long-term view to marriage. To kill people out of hatred (as Todd does) is one thing, but Mrs Lovett does so for love.

With the Union Theatre standing under a Victorian railway arch, the setting for this tale could not have been more apt. With dark alleys and stairways formed by the cast tip-toeing through and behind the audience, the show started strongly as single figures emerged out of the darkness to sing The Ballad of Sweeney Todd . Then throughout, the chorus frequently stood inches from the audience and blasted them away with their menacing sound.

The cast was generally strong although not every principal seemed entirely suited to their role. Christopher Howell in the title role proved an amazing singer, but almost too good an actor for the part. He seemed too determined to portray a range of emotions throughout the piece, and this prevented us from seeing a man fuelled by hatred from start to finish. Nevertheless, at the right moments he was superb, not least when delivering Todd’s Epiphany straight to the audience. Emma Francis as Mrs Lovett delivered every line so that the discerning viewer could see exactly how she was manipulating the situation to move closer to getting what she wanted. She did this so skilfully, however, that we often forgot how awful Mrs Lovett really was and instead saw her as a maternal, kind-hearted figure.

Leon Kay, as Anthony Hope, had a good voice but his persona was too rough to allow him and Katie Stokes, as Johanna, to convince as the romantic couple (in direct contrast to all the other characters). David Kristopher-Brown demonstrated a magnificent pair of lungs as Todd’s rival in shaving, Pirelli, and his upper register was quite incredible. Nigel Pilkington as Beadle Bamford was brilliantly creepy and his rendition of the (fictitious) Victorian parlour song, Sweet Polly Plunkett, wonderfully comic.

Stephen Rashbrook was a restrained Judge Turpin, playing him as quite a distinguished man rather than the grotesque figure that is more normally portrayed. This worked well in his delivery of Mea Culpa, where it is all too easy to go over the top. However, both of his encounters in the barber’s chair with Todd fell flat. As Todd works up to slitting his throat (succeeding on the second occasion, but being interrupted on the first) we should witness two great climaxes to the drama, but neither fully materialised.

And though the setting was perfect, the staging was not always as successful as it could have been. With Todd’s barber’s shop on a higher level to the rest of the stage, this cut into the area where the chorus could perform and made certain scenes such as the dance at the ball feel cramped. The props were also disappointing with the meat grinder being miniature, and the normally menacing contraption upon which Todd dispatched his customers being merely a swivel chair. True, this is a small theatre but I have seen amateur productions do better.

Nevertheless, at its best this production worked very well, and this was no better illustrated than in Todd and Mrs Lovett’s duet, A Little Priest. In joking about how each type of person forms a different flavour of pie, they built up quite an incredible rapport. Indeed, when Francis genuinely fluffed one line because she was laughing so much it didn’t matter, only making their exchanges seem even more natural.

And so, all in all, this Union Theatre production of Sweeney Todd made for an enjoyable evening. It may not quite have scaled the heights of its all-male Mikado in the summer, but if anyone were thinking of spending an evening watching Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd on DVD, my advice couldn’t be clearer. You’ll have a far more enjoyable and fulfilling night by going to see this production instead.

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