Sweeney Todd – Derby Theatre and Mercury Theatre, Colchester

Sweeney Todd at Derby Theatre Photo Robert Day (Sophie-Louise Dann as Mrs Lovett)-2

Sophie-Louise Dann in Sweeney Todd at Derby Theatre. Picture: Robert Day

Sweeney Todd continues at Derby Theatre until 22 October before transferring to Colchester’s Mercury Theatre where it will run from 26 October until 12 November.

Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩

It’s not so many seasons since the former Derby Playhouse staged Sweeney Todd – and easily merited a five star rating. Now Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s grisly musical has resurfaced at the new Derby Theatre, every bit as buoyant and imaginative in its repertoire as its forerunner. And if Daniel Buckroyd’s vivid staging falls just a fraction short of its memorable predecessor, it comes close.

One thing that gives it such atmosphere is Sara Perks’ 180-degree swivelling set: a clever, large-scale concept that enables us to approach Sweeney’s fatal hairdressing salon, Mrs Lovett’s amusing harmonium-filled office and a series of outdoor views and indoor salons from different angles.

The grim Dickensian feel is artfully evoked (thanks not least to suitably sinister, eerie lighting from David Kidd), and the chorus, formed by various principals (and slightly more skilfully and precisely manoeuvred in Act II), sings admirably and adds much to the period feel. Indeed one quintet is just perfect.

Another triumph in this staging is the contribution of the orchestra. Astonishingly, musical director Michael Haslam and just five musicians manage to create a sound which fills the auditorium to great effect.

Haslam’s work on keyboards, producing the feel of harpsichord and harmonium alongside piano, is wonderful. From the start, clarinettist Helen Bywater’s delicate touches never cease to tease as the saga unfolds. This applies whether played solo or within the textures. The same works for the trumpet (Calum Tonner) – subtly played.

Haslam maintains gentle levels which means the band never for one moment outweighs the voices. The balances is fabulous. At one later point, when this artful team conjures up the sound of birds singing, the effect is magical.

The impact of Sondheim’s work obviously hinges on Sweeney and Mrs Lovett. Hugh Maynard certainly has strength of presence – this is a solid Sweeney, determined to rule his kingdom, interacting well with the various arrivals – Judge Turpin (David Durham), the ubiquitous Beggar Woman (Kara Lane), the cheerful Beadle Bamford (a nice supporting cameo from Julian Hoult), and the amorous Anthony Hope (Jack Wilcox, an attractive tenor), the sailor who is the real love of the innocent but determined Johanna (the touching, attractively voiced Christina Bennington).

Two roles are especially well taken. Simon Shorten’s Signor Pirelli is one of the highlights of the evening, an inventive, part serious, part comic undertaking that enlivens the proceedings every time he appeared onstage.

And Ryan Heenan as the young lad in the know (Tobias, or Toby, Ragg) who becomes Mrs Lovett’s pie making assistant, is also one of the most nicely observed and skilfully sung parts in a capable team.

But it is Sophie-Louise Dann who really dominates the show. Her Mrs Lovett, brilliantly varied vocally, alternating between a sinister edge and a really beautiful contrasting, almost cooing sound, is the real star, and a hoot from start to finish.

Her characterisation is terrific: every little flicker, or comic aside, or mischievous planning, is brilliantly prepared and perfectly carried off.

Roderic Dunnett




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