Lovett + Todd continues at the King’s Head Theatre, London until 1 August.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★
It’s an audacious theatre company that tackles a brand new musical inspired by Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. But it’s the kind of audacity that we’ve come to expect from Another Soup, creators of this curious reincarnation at the King’s Head. And while at times it veers a little off course, it nevertheless presents an interesting and feminine twist on the old penny-dreadful tale.
It’s interesting to note that one of the first known dramatic interpretations of the original 1846 story The String of Pearls: A Romance, staged in 1847, focused not on the bloodthirsty barber Sweeney Todd but his partner in crime, Mrs Lovett. And it has to be said that when Stephen Sondheim’s magnum opus – in the shadow of which all other Sweeneys cower – is performed, it’s usually Mrs Lovett who steals the show. What director and book writer Dave Spencer does with Lovett + Todd is run with this concept and turn the spotlight fully on the pernicious pie maker.
Said pie maker is played by Louise Torres-Ryan, who has the allure and force of personality to carry the show. Not, I suspect, a trained singer, she is however a fierce actress and the show’s securely placed lynchpin. Her Cornelia Lovett is a scheming, sensuous Lady Macbeth (a role with which she has had experience, it seems) who uses all her feminine wiles to lure Sweeney to commit unspeakable acts.
Abetting our Nellie is sister Amelia, played by Rose Bruford graduate Rachael Garnett. This newly-created character – not in the original String of Pearls – is even darker in deed than her sibling, running an orphanage that takes in wayward newborns, only to choke them to death and pass them to her sister for pie fillings. Although the part fizzles out halfway through the show, Garnett plays her with dark-eyed intensity and makes a strong contribution to the vocal ensemble.
In the role of Sweeney Todd is Daniel Collard, who portrays the barber as a gentle, lonely soul overwhelmed by the attention lavished on him by the sultry Mrs Lovett. His Todd is certainly the victim of the piece, used by the harpy-like women to carry out their evil deeds. Collard, who has previous with the Sondheim version, is a believable Sweeney, and one that the audience sympathises with.
Supporting this threesome are Eddie Mann, Sarah Shelton and Andy Watkins, all of whom do a credible job of fleshing out the ancillary roles. Mann, in particular, keeps the show moving with his narration and adds musical colour with his guitar (although could do with a haircut if he’s meant to be portraying an officer of the law!) The others also fill in the orchestration on occasion, supporting MD Tom Jack Merivale at the piano and accordion with trumpets, guitars and the seemingly now-obligatory cajon – an instrument that really does jar with the Victorian setting.
Indeed, it’s the music that did the least for me, I’m afraid to say. I was engaged by the performances and gripped by the plot (loved the final twist in the tale), and I even stomached the somewhat contrived audience-participation dancing scene that felt shoehorned in to tick Another Soup’s box on what they insist on calling ‘Brechtian Immersion’. But the music never quite seemed to gel as well as the rest of the ingredients.
As with Another Soup’s Dorian Gray, composer Jo Turner hits the right notes when the music picks up on the Victorian vernacular – musically as well as lyrically – so the more music hall-inspired numbers cohere well and feel a natural part of the show. The less successful songs – as carefully crafted and as accomplished as they are – jar because content and form divide; the closing flamenco tango, for example, undoubtedly delightful and musical, just seems a very odd fit.
Like Maury Yeston’s Phantom or Donald Cotton and Brian Burke’s 1959 pre-Sondheim version of Sweeney, The Demon Barber, this is a piece that I suspect will most likely appeal to musical theatre fans intrigued to see and hear a different take on a more well-known show. It certainly puts an amusing and quirky spin on the story, and if you’re a Sweeney fan, for the sake of the £15 ticket, don’t miss it; just be prepared for more of an amuse bouche than a fully-filled meat pie.
Oh, and buy a programme – it supports the good work at the King’s Head and doubles as a much-needed fan in the baking hot black box. By the end of it, I felt as if I’d fallen victim to Sweeney and spent 90 minutes in Mrs Lovett’s Aga.