Following the death of Stephen Sondheim in November 2021, it was inevitable that many of his shows would be performed this year, but I was surprised to see a community theatre group tackling this particular production. Putting on the story of Sweeney Todd is a big challenge for any theatre, and this company has risen to that challenge and smashed it! Director and choreographer Paul Kerryson, who also serves the High Peak Theatre Trust as its CEO, has clearly provided excellent leadership for this Platform 3 production, part of the Buxton Opera House’s learning and engagement initiative.
One of Sondheim’s more widely known musicals, thanks in part to the 2007 film adaptation by Tim Burton, the story follows Sweeney Todd as he returns to London, determined to seek revenge for his exile and the loss of his family. He meets Mrs Lovett, a pie-maker, and they quickly form a friendship as Todd continues on his increasingly complicated quest. The book by Hugh Wheeler keeps the audience guessing as to what will happen next, and I love all the twists and turns this show takes you on in the course of almost 3 hours; not that it felt that long at all tonight: Kerryson keeps a brilliant pace throughout.
The set design (Ian Tregaskis) and props (Zoe Salmon and Annie Hasler) served the production exceptionally well, and there were plenty of dramatic moments and a good amount of fake blood! The programme told me that there were only seven members in the orchestra, led by Musical Director Richard Atkinson, but at times it sounded like there were many more people in the pit and together they made Sondheim’s score sound as beautiful as ever.
This is clearly a company that nurtures community talent, and the principal performers in this production are proof that it is working well. James Rockey grew authentically from anger to calculated revenge as Sweeney Todd, and I found myself repeatedly sympathising with him, against my better judgement! His partnership with Jennifer Hague as Mrs Lovett was as endearing and believable as it was dysfunctional, and Hague showed an excellent level of self-awareness and some fantastic comic timing. Rhydian Jenkins gave an emotional performance as Anthony, as he pursued love and freedom. Finally, while I enjoyed Lucas Bailey’s antics as Pirelli’s assistant, Tobias, it was his developing relationship with Mrs Lovett and his performance of Not While I’m Around that really touched me.
However, it was not just the acting that should be commended in this production. Every performer sang Sondheim’s complex and rapid score with real commitment and talent. I believe this is the best community musical theatre production that I have ever seen, and I only wish that it was on longer to enable more people to see it, and to allow the cast and crew to really settle into a rhythm.
It is worth remembering that Sondheim never wrote anything without a purpose, and I really like the fact that this play ends with a reminder of the perils of seeking revenge, while recognising that it is something we are all guilty of at one time or another.
“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd…” the company sing in their closing epilogue… and I highly recommend that you do, in both senses of the word!
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is playing at the Buxton Opera House until Sunday 1st May. Information and tickets can be found here: https://buxtonoperahouse.org.uk/event/sweeney-todd The matinee performance on Sunday 1st May will be BSL interpreted.
Reviewer: Jo Tillotson
Reviewed: 29th April 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★