Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street continues at Twickenham Theatre, London until 4 October.
First of all, a huge welcome to Twickenham Theatre, a new fringe venture ten miles from central London, easily accessible from Waterloo by train (only a minute’s walk from the station), and off to a spectacular, blood-curdling start with Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s enduring masterpiece.
Situated, like so many fringe theatres, on the first floor of a pub, it’s the brainchild of local entrepreneur Tony Green, who himself has produced shows in the West End, and can seat 100. But for the complex staging of this launch musical, a remarkably assured start to Mountview graduate Derek Anderson’s career as director, only 60 can be accommodated.
And if future output can match Sweeney’s brilliance – it’s a hard act to follow – they must be on to a winner despite the fierce competition for audiences only a mile away across the Thames from Richmond Theatre and the Orange Tree.
Mind you, they have started right at the top with a three-week run of probably the greatest musical Sondheim ever wrote and, in the eyes of many, the greatest musical anybody ever wrote.
Certainly, it’s the bloodiest, and at Twickenham you can’t miss the gore because the audience sits right on top of the stage in a claustrophobic, foggy chamber setting much as Sondheim will have imagined it when he wrote music and lyrics to Wheeler’s story back in 1979.
There’s no shortage of the red stuff as David Bedella as Sweeney wipes out many an unsuspecting victim in his lust for revenge on the judge who wrongly convicted him, a lust that turns into a rage against the whole human race, even the maker of the “worst pies in London”.
Poor, deluded Nellie Lovett gives him a home and her total adoration, all completely ignored by the one-track-minded Sweeney, who turns into a crazed killer empowered by ‘My Friends’, the cut-throat razors of his trade that enable him to wreak a terrible venegeance on the corruption around him.
Sondheim has leavened the grisly Grand Guignol with bags of humour and some of his funniest songs – ‘The Worst Pies in London’ and the wonderful ‘By the Sea’, both perfectly conveyed by Sarah Ingram as one of the best Mrs Lovetts you will ever see, as well as the ever-clever ‘A Little Priest’, done a treat by Ingram and Bedella.
How lucky Twickenham is to have West End stars of the quality of American actor-singer Bedella, an Olivier winner for Jerry Springer the Opera with Chicago and The Rocky Horror Show also prominent on an impressive CV, and Ingram (Oklahoma!, South Pacific, Martin Guerre) to get this brave new world under way.
The expressive Ingram gets most of the best songs and funniest lines, Bedella is a brooding presence consumed by making the guilty pay for the loss of wife and daughter during the banished years, and having worked together before – in Sondheim’s Road Show at the Menier – the chemistry is palpable even if the love is one-sided.
Among the supporting cast, Shaun Chambers does a great faux Italian accent as Pirelli, Josh Tevendale’s ‘Johanna’ and ‘Ah, Miss’ show off a lovely singing voice (but less clear when speaking as he tends to rush), and Chris Coleman as Beadle Bamford extracts all the humour out of his big song, ‘Ladies in Their Sensitivities’.
Genevieve Kingsford, so good in the title role in LSMT’s Violet at the Bridewell recently, makes a likeable professional debut as Johanna, and having young Tobias played by a girl, the petite Mikaela Newton, works well enough, although her voice needs more variation.
The experienced Mark McKerracher picks up steam as Judge Turpin, and while Zoe Curlett is believable as the Beggar Woman, she would have been all the more so with a more raddled make-up. It is hard to accept that Sweeney, preoccupied though he is, could so totally fail to guess who she is before it is too late.
The band of four, two pianos (MD Benjamin Holder and Matt Ramplin), a violin (Matthew Atkins) and Alice Angliss (percussion), give tremendous support to the cast of nine, most of whom have to desert their roles to multi-task the ensemble numbers, in a hypnotic, highly-charged evening about which the first thought afterwards was: “When can I see it again?”
More good news: the excellent programme is half West End price and there’s change from a tenner downstairs at the London Road bar for two generous glasses of wine, a nice surprise after being ripped off £8.20 for a single glass at one West End theatre the other day.
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Interview – David Bedella is Sweeney Todd at Twickenham Theatre