I always jump at any chance to see a show written by Stephen Sondheim, and as we approach the second anniversary of his death next month opportunities on both the professional and amateur stage approach thick and fast. Tonight, Sale & Altrincham Musical Theatre present ‘Sweeney Todd’ written by Sondheim and his long time collaborator Hugh Wheeler, a production that despite some excellent individual performances never fulfils its potential as the ‘sensational horror show’ that Sondheim conceived.
Written at the zenith of his productivity in 1979, ‘Sweeney Todd’ is the tale of a tortured barber (played this evening by Richard Ross), escaping from transportation to Australia for a crime he did not commit, returning to Victorian London to exact his revenge on evil Judge Turpin (Jon Gardner) and a reunion with his long lost daughter. He lodges with Mrs Lovett (Steph Niland) and they commence profitable sideline murdering tonsorial customers and turning them into delicious pies. This hilarious and gruesome premise allowed Sondheim to wallow in the ‘Grand Guignol’ style of schlock horror whilst employing his trademark dark lyricism to huge comic effect.
Director Martyn Preston initially presents us with a bare stage, scaffolding walkways across the rear and a single over lit chair placed centrally on a raised dais, which remains in place throughout the entire three hours of the show. This is a bold minimalist vision of the teeming Victorian London in which the revenge tragedy of Sweeney Todd is played out, and whilst it allowed for minimal props to be utilised the staging was at the heart of many of the issues with this production. The raised platform in the centre was immensely intrusive, often left bare for large periods of the production and constantly having to be maneuvered around. It forced many of the crucial and important scenes to be played out at the extremities of the stage, giving a cramped feeling to the choreography and obstructing audience sight lines to the action. This was particularly obvious during the larger ensemble scenes, in particular ‘God, That’s Good’ at the opening of the second act, where around twenty cast members were squeezed into a small area down stage left, with the rest of the stage left completely bare. Similarly, the elaborately constructed walkways were underused, acting only as walk-on areas for limited numbers of the chorus, without ever feeling integral to the main action below and creating a disconnect. Scene changes were slow and cumbersome, lighting cues were missed consistently, and the sound levels of the band often overshadowed the delicate lyrics of the performance. Hopefully the technical glitches can be ascribed to opening night and the production will settle to a higher technical level as the run progresses, but some of the staging difficulties will persist as a result of the decisions employed at the outset.
One of the strengths of ‘Sweeney Todd’ is the strong choral nature of the music giving the production weight and ballast. This power is usually delivered by the strong ensemble necessary in this show; but again, the restrictions of the staging often meant that the ensemble cast were not consistently able to be fully deployed. The programme listed sixteen ensemble members amongst a total cast of twenty six, but rarely were these numbers present, resulting in the supporting vocals feeling weak, underpowered and lacking the operatic intention that Sondheim intended; a soggy crust wrapped around the main meat of the production.
Of the leading performances Myles Ryan displayed endearing innocence as Tobias during his rendering of ‘Not While I’m Around’, and Gardner was strong as Judge Turpin, the flagellation scene during ‘Johanna’ eliciting purposeful discomfort in the audience. Both Connor Ryan and Sasha Carrillo convinced well in the junior lead roles as Anthony and Johanna respectively. Indeed, their duet (Kiss Me) was a real highlight of the opening half, both managing to dexterously navigate the complex lyricism and structure of this song whilst displaying considerable vocal skill. Carrillo particularly had a difficult role, Johanna requires a constant high soprano range which is not always achieved comfortably and is difficult to blend vocally with other parts, she managed both excellently.
Ross in the eponymous role of Todd certainly looked the part, tall, shaven headed and cadaverous in appearance, however I found his vocal performance to be underwhelming, lacking an operatic bass-baritone voice his songs were mostly semi spoken, which gave clarity to the lyrics but were not appropriate in a virtually sung through production. He was strongest during the rare moments when purely acting, allowing other stronger vocalists to shine most obviously during his duet ‘By The Sea’ with his onstage partner in crime Mrs Lovett. In this role Steph Niland was an absolute delight, palpably nervous on this opening night, the rendition of ‘Worst Pies In London’ was poorly executed, rushed and lacking the inherent humour of the lyrics, However, she quickly shook this off and developed into the part with style and craft, ‘A Little Priest’ (my favourite Sondheim song) and By The Sea’ were delivered with precision and humour and she brought pathos to her relationship with Tobias in the latter part of the show. She was deservedly cheered to the rafters at the conclusion.
Overall, this production lacked the power necessary to be totally convincing, limited by the nature of its minimalist setting and without the operatic breath and stature that a successful staging requires. Strong individual performances are peppered throughout but it left me wanting much more of the blood, horror and subtle humour which is present in the writing.
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 17th October 2023
North West End UK Rating: