Sweeney Todd

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler
Derby Playhouse
(2004)

Jenny Galloway as Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd

Critics who expressed their disappointment at Derby Playhouse's "safe" choice of plays for this season obviously didn't know how complicated and intricate Sweeney Todd is.

None of them could have imagined the trauma which developed off-stage only a week before the production began. Lead actor James Smillie pulled out for reasons which haven't been revealed, potentially leaving the theatre with more problems than Sweeney Todd has when his barber's chair is empty or when Mrs Lovett doesn't have any customers for "the worst pies in London".

To the rescue came Australian Lyndon Terracini who'd originally been considered for the role but wasn't sure initially whether he could commit to the four-week run. He's played Sweeney Todd at least twice before; I doubt whether a less experienced performer could have stepped in at such short notice.

Sweeney Todd is the tale of the demon barber of Fleet Street and his partner in crime, Mrs Lovett. She disposes of his victims' bodies by baking them into her pies which go down well with her customers.

It's seems odd that Derby Playhouse has included this musical in its season based around love because it's often below the surface and takes second place to greed, vengeance and lust.

There is little wrong with the production. Director Stephen Edwards reckons this is one of the best singing casts ever to appear in a British production of the show. There can be few arguments about that.

Terracini is magnificent. His baritone voice booms out, making light work of some extremely difficult arrangements. All eyes are on him whenever he's on stage.

Jenny Galloway, a previous winner of the Laurence Olivier award for the most outstanding performance in a musical, is just as impressive. She almost steals the show; rotund and motherly, she seems to get all the comic lines and produces the only light relief in what is quite a heavy production.

All the cast are superb, with another award-winner, Craig Purnell (Tobias Ragg), especially strong when he finds out what Todd and Mrs Lovett are up to. The six-piece band under the direction of Andrew Synnott are exceptional and are called out for a richly deserved ovation at the end.

Neil Irish's set is little short of amazing. The dinginess of Fleet Street and the surrounding area is there for all to see while the stage revolves to reveal several settings topped by a chute which transports Todd's victims from his chair to the bakery below.

The problem with Sweeney Todd is that none of its songs is instantly memorable. While Sondheim's lyrics are exceptionally clever, the music isn't as populist. I doubt if there’ll be a huge number of people lining up to buy the soundtrack.

A few hours after the show the only thing musically I could remember was parts of the theme tune. The rest of the songs are inharmonious, even discordant. Had they been slightly more melodious, Sweeney Todd could easily be up there alongside Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera.

Even so, this production of Sweeney Todd offers a rare opportunity to see and hear one of Sondheim's least performed works. It's a tasty offering which fills your appetite even though you may not want to return for seconds.

"Sweeney Todd" runs until May 22nd

Reviewer: Steve Orme