Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London was performed by students of the Royal Academy of Music.
Rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
While their own theatre in Marylebone is being rebuilt, students of the Royal Academy of Music have been on the road and there could be nowhere more appropriate than the fabled Theatre Royal in the East End for their modern-dress revival of Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece.
For it was there that he got the inspiration for this very bloody musical thriller (book by Hugh Wheeler) after seeing Christopher Bond’s play of the same name in 1973.
I am not normally a fan of great works, be they Shakespeare or Sondheim, being tampered with or updated. This was the third Sweeney I’ve seen in the past two years in a different time zone from the intended 1846 but, under Michael Fentiman’s taut, inventive direction, it works well.
Yet the two that most stay in the memory, the Fringe productions in the Tooting pie-and-mash shop and at Twickenham, stayed true to the original as far as they could.
The idea of having the chorus in sinister matching black shades creates an atmosphere of doom straight away and Adrian Gee’s split-level set, with plenty of rum goings-on upstairs, is brilliantly conceived.
The title role is chillingly played. It is easy to overdo the overkill (sorry) as the demon barber and Lawrence Smith’s brooding, intense, bent-on-revenge performance, showing absolutely no interest in the amorous advances of his partner-in-crime Nellie Lovett, is pitched just right.
In a wild blonde wig, Elissa Churchill makes quite a sexy thing out of the frustrated Mrs Lovett, forever flirting with Sweeney and dreaming of happy days ‘By the Sea’ but, don’t be fooled, she’s at least his equal when it comes to being evil.
Lovett is one of Sondheim’s greatest creations and the lively Churchill has much fun with her, particularly with ‘The Worst Pies in London’.
With his shaven head and black, goatee beard, Johan Berg has a strong stage presence and makes a menacing Judge Turpin, the perverted guardian of Sweeney’s daughter Johanna, and we had a Beadle Bamford in Tao (Tim) Deng, who was so camp and decadent I was looking forward to him administering a bit of ‘correction’ to the judge. Was the flagellation scene omitted?
The best singing comes from the pleasing tenor of Ruben Van keer as the lovestruck Anthony, desperate to get the lovely Johanna (Genevieve McCarthy) out of the judge’s clutches.
Francisco del Solar makes a wheedling Pirelli, a very nasty piece of work bumped off early, but Brian Raftery lasts to the bitter end as his simple-minded assistant Tobias while all around him they’re falling like ninepins in this darkest of all musicals.
Make-up is often a problem with students not the same age as the characters they are playing and a bit more raddled Beggar Woman would have been more realistic.
After all, having been Todd’s wife 15 years earlier before he was sent into exile on a trumped-up charge, she has been through a great deal since. Even though Sweeney is so tunnel-visioned in his obsession with revenge, he would surely have recognised this Lucy before murdering her.
Sondheim’s most arresting score is lovingly played by eight of RAM’s finest under the baton of Torquil Munro and with Sam Spencer-Lane guiding the choreography, the crowd scenes, particularly in the Sweeney v Pirelli shaving contest, are always going to flow.
Fings ain’t anything like they used t’be in Stratford East, much tarted up since the heady days of Joan Littlewood in the 1960s. For a start, there’’s a larger-than-life sculpture of The Mother of Modern Theatre outside, unveiled last October. But it’s still perfect for this very ‘London’ piece.
Littlewood had given up directing by the time Sondheim’s gory epic was conceived but if she had got her hands on it, she would surely have approved of this contemporary spin and relished the thrill of working with such talent in the early days of their careers.